“[Hock] knows he is ensorcelled by exoticism, but he can’t help himself. And, as things go from bad to worse and the pages start to turn faster, neither can we. A.”—Entertainment Weekly
When he was a young man, Ellis Hock spent four of the best years of his life with the Peace Corps in Malawi. So when his wife of forty-two years leaves him, he decides to return to the village where he was stationed in search of the happiness he’d been missing since he left. But what he finds is not what he expected. The school he built is a ruin, the church and clinic are gone, and poverty and apathy have set in among the people.
They remember Ellis and welcome him with open arms. Soon, however, their overtures turn menacing; they demand money and refuse to let him leave the village. Is his new life an escape or a trap?
“Theroux’s bravely unsentimental novel about a region where he began his own grand career should become part of anybody’s education in the continent.”—Washington Post
“The Lower River is riveting in its storytelling and provocative in its depiction of this African backwater, infusing both with undertones of slavery and cannibalism, savagery and disease.”—New York Times Book Review
Theroux (Hotel Honolulu) draws on personal experience and literary antecedents (think Heart of Darkness) for his latest adventurous tale. Ellis Hock, 62, has a marriage in shambles, an estranged daughter, and a failing business. Hoping to escape the modern world and put his money and time to good use, he leaves Massachusetts for a place rich with fonder memories a village in the Lower River district of Malawi, where Ellis served with the Peace Corps for four years in his 20s. But Malabo is not the quaint community that he left decades ago the people are more suspicious and reticent. Perhaps interaction with Western NGOs has changed them, or maybe it s just that Hock s youthful optimism has dimmed with age. But the village remembers him the mzungu who doesn t fear snakes and Hock finds himself ensnared in a situation far more complex than anything he expected. A somewhat slow exposition and occasional repetition aside, Theroux successfully grafts keen observations about the efficacy of international aid and the nature of nostalgia to a swift-moving narrative through a beautifully described landscape.
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Not the same old Africa
As someone who lived in Africa decades ago I could relate to the main's character feeling of wanting to go back, escape our complex, often overbearing world, for the simplicity of old Africa. As a travel writer Theroux puzzles me as he seems to want to discourage travel, at least in the way he promotes it outside of his stories. Both in this book and in Elephanta Suite there's a sense of foreign interference that causes trouble and ends badly for the visitor but mostly for locals. Theroux is a gifted writer who can haunt you with his descriptions of despair and hopelessness but there is never a good ending for the locals, only the foreigner is allowed that privilege.
I lived many years ago in Central Africa and the descriptions in this novel are so accurate about the terrain and animals also the shifts and contradictions of the African mind are dealt with in detail, accurately!
Great memory gone bad....
It is quite possible, when the perfect time and place intersect with with idealistic hopes to create an unforgettable experience. So it was with Hock as a Peace corps volunteer in Africa. When dulled by life, he tries to revisit that idyllic time with the hope of recapturing something real. He gives up everything to return to his African village. But we know it isn't the same village; and he isn't the same man. In fact, this village has become a shabby version of the modern life he is trying to escape, led by a very skilled chief who manages to take all that Hock has bit by bit until only his person is left for collateral. Slowly, with menace, Hock loses everything, including hope.
Sometimes a book can cure one of a desire to travel to a place as it also gives a great story. Bill Bryson's A walk in the Woods cured me of wanting to walk the Appalachian Trail. Ian Frazier cured my interest in Siberia with Travels in Siberia. This book cured me of Africa while keeping me engrossed in a riveting story.