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The Lower River [Hardcover]

Paul Theroux
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 22 2012
“[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

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The Lower River + The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari + Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown
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Review

"It’s a particular kind of frightening fun to watch evil flexing and spreading its leathery wings, and really feel it. The Lower River gives the reader just that." -- The New York Review of Books "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. Theroux exposes paternalism in Hock’s Peace Corps nostalgia, his ‘sense of responsibility, almost a conceit of ownership.’ That sense of responsibility, and Hock’s modest contribution to the welfare of a people he was once genuinely fond of, has been replaced by a harsher mode of operation, run by coldhearted contractors living apart in impregnable compounds. ‘I have to leave,’ Hock pleads. ‘I’m going home.’ To which the village headman replies, with chilling menace, ‘This is your home, father.’ " -- New York Times Book Review   “[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
  “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
"In this hypnotically compelling fiction, [Theroux] wrestles with questions of good intentions and harsh reality...A gripping and vital novel that reads like Conrad or Greene—in short, a classic." -- Booklist, starred   "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." -- PW, starred   "Extraordinary...The suspense is enriched by Theroux’s loving attention to local customs and his subversive insights...Theroux has recaptured the sweep and density of his 1981 masterpiece The Mosquito Coast. That’s some achievement." -- Kirkus, starred   "Theroux's latest can be read as straight-up suspense, but those unafraid of following him into the heart of darkness will be rewarded with much to discuss in this angry, ironic depiction of misguided philanthropy in a country dense with natural resources yet unable to feed its people." -- Library Journal

About the Author

PAUL THEROUX's highly acclaimed novels include Blinding Light, Hotel Honolulu, My Other Life, Kowloon Tong, and The Mosquito Coast. His travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Dark Star Safari, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, and The Happy Isles of Oceania. He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "A story is a way of making life bearable." July 21 2012
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Paul Theroux's recent novel, THE LOWER RIVER, follows sixty-something year old Ellis Hock back to Africa to connect with a time forty years ago, "the happiest years of his life", when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer and teacher in a remote village in Malawi. On and off he has been dreaming about that time and place, returning to it in his mind when wandering through his hometown zoo; his memories flooding back with a strong sense of nostalgic longing. Now that his marriage has fallen apart, his business is in decline, he sells all and, almost secretly, embarks on a return visit to the village of his dreams, Malabo. Most of the novel follows Hock's arrival and time in Malawi and in "his remote village". Malawians and expats warn him: "nobody goes there", or "abandon all hope". Yet, it is exactly what Hock is seeking: a place not touched by development, a village that has stood still, frozen in time and that would welcome him as it did all those years ago.

Looking at the highly appreciative and admiring reviews on amazon.com and elsewhere, I realize that I may be in a small minority to regard this book mostly as a fictionalized version of chpaters from Theroux's travel book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown, where he describes his return to a remote region of Malawi that looks and feels very much like Malabo. Not surprisingly, the novel draws on the author's personal experiences, both as a traveler in the early twenty first century and as a Peace Corps volunteer there in his younger years. These close ties to physical realities, increased by the detailed descriptions of places and landscapes, make it difficult for this reader to conceive THE LOWER RIVER as a work of fiction alone.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Modern Day Classic June 26 2013
By Troy Parfitt TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The Last Word.

Call it an author’s revenge. If you follow Paul Theroux, you’ll know that he has criticized Western relief efforts in Africa, arguing they represent a band-aid-to-the-dying approach and don’t go toward long term improvements. Not surprisingly, he’s been called out by philanthropists and others. The charge? Theroux doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Only he does. He’s written a lot about Africa, including two travel narratives, and his My Secret History describes (we guess, because it’s fiction, sort of) his time spent in Uganda in the ‘60s. And this novel, a fictionalized ethnography, a horror story with echoes of Conrad and Naipul, shows us just how much he knows, and we are enlightened and appalled. There’s no arguing with the novel. It does what op-ed pieces and a travel narratives do not; it shows us culture as local, as personal, as terrible. The Lower River is a damned good read. Anyone who’s ever traded in their home context for another one, anybody who’s played amateur anthropologist, anybody who's ever thought, 'What these people need....' ought to relate. The pages breathe with detail and the story seeps into your consciousness. The pages, as they say, practically turn by themselves. Read this book, and then read more Paul Theroux books. You can’t go wrong.

Troy Parfitt is the author Why China Will Never Rule the World.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You were wrong, V.S. Naipaul Aug. 1 2012
Format:Hardcover
Paul Theroux's arch nemesis claimed rather sourly a few years ago that "we don't write anything worthwhile after 50." But with his latest novel, Theroux (who must be at least 60) proves V.S. Naipaul wrong. The Lower River is a dark, gripping tale worthy of Joseph Conrad which had me hooked from beginning to end. While his disillusioned view of modern Africa won't be popular with the politically-correct, I loved it. Africa is turf he clearly knows well and it shows. For me, one of his best novels.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  146 reviews
99 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable March 22 2012
By M. Feldman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
As a young man in the 1960's, the writer Paul Theroux joined the Peace Corps and taught school in a village in Malawi, then a British colony. Decades later, as part of the north-south journey through Africa chronicled in his "Dark Star Safari," he returns to this village, only to find the school he built fallen into disrepair and the villagers dependent on aid from western charities.

This bit of biography is the basis of the story of "The Lower River," a novel that is a riveting adventure story, a meditation on what constitutes happiness, and a satirical skewering of the culture of dependency fostered by well-meant philanthropy. It is the tale of Ellis Hock, a man in his sixties who, unhappy in his own life, decides to return to the village in Malawi where he had been happy once, long ago. Like many of Theroux's characters, Hock has a bit of Theroux's own life attached to him; he owns a store in Medford, Massachusetts, where Theroux grew up, and inhabits, post-divorce, a condo in a building that once served as Medford High School.

Ellis Hock may resemble Paul Theroux in some of the details, but he is decidedly not the acerbic writer himself. Hock is touching and vulnerable in his sadness and in his optimism that happiness can be found in a place. In his return to Malabo, the village where he had been a teacher, he equips himself with everything he will need: clothes, a sturdy bag, plenty of money, a few essential contacts, and photocopies of his passport. He reaches the remote village intent on doing good. Instead, he finds himself at the center of a set of circumstances that reads like a thriller, complete with complex plots and near-escapes.

So fine and so compelling is this novel (and yes, it's the kind that demands to be picked up repeatedly until you are done reading it) that I am reluctant to say much more about the plot. So know that this is a story full of illusions, lies and brilliant detail. There is the NGO "Agence Anonyme," with its food donations and celebrity visits; there is the village composed entirely of and ruled by children, whose parents have been lost to "eddsi" (AIDS). The false humility of Manyenga, the village chief, may put you in mind of a character from Conrad. In fact, you'll have to decide for yourself how much has changed--or if anything has changed at all--since Conrad's own journey up the Congo river more than 120 years ago, the journey that was the basis of "Heart of Darkness."

M. Feldman
47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The truth is absent here." March 25 2012
By Jill I. Shtulman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Anyone who has read Paul Theroux knows one of his key themes is the American innocent abroad, refusing to acknowledge the dark side of the people he encounters...or himself. In many of his past novels, his characters are transplanted into a new culture and struggle to survive against environmental, cultural and psychological pressures.

For those who enjoy Theroux, his latest novel does not disappoint. In fact, it soars.

Once again, we are treated to an anti-hero who is forced to meet his overblown expectations head-on. And once again there are tendrils of Theroux's own life: Ellis Hock, like Theroux himself, hails from Medford, Massachusetts and spent time in the backwaters of Malawi as a teacher during a tender age.(Theroux was actually dismissed from the Peace Corps for becoming involved in Malawi's politics).

Now, forty years later, Hock's business and marriage have failed, his daughter has revealed her avarice, and he decides to return to The Lower River - the poorest part of a poor country and home of the superstitious Sena people.

The ensuing tale - a tale of salvation and damnation, evocative of Heart of Darkness or Lord of the Flies - is downright hypnotic. Hock is known as the man who handles snakes in a village that fears them; this tale, too, grips around the reader, holding tight, not letting go. Hock "did not want to think that Africa was hopeless." But in reality, "the school would remain a roofless shell, a nest of snake, the office a hideout for the orphan boys, the clinic a ruin."

The plot twists are so intriguing that I don't even want to allude to them; suffice to say that Theroux delves deeply into whether a healthy interest in a different culture can coincide with the arrogance and egotism that we bring to that culture. "What do you want? I'm from America. I can get food, I can find money for you," Hock says, when placed in a potentially dangerous situation. Yet as he later discovers, "You come with money to the poor, and they are so frenzied by hunger that all they see is the money. They never see your face, and so when the money is gone, you are revealed as mere flesh: a surprise. They don't know you."

The most riveting parts of the story are the power plays between Hock and Manyenga, the cynical and sniveling village chief, who oppresses him with meaningless gestures of honor, baring to the core what he believes the mzungo "divinity" - the white man - is all about. There is much to mull over: "This looks such a simple place. But no, everyone lies, so you can't know it all...If you're hungry, you will do everything, you will agree to anything, you will say anything." Once more, Theroux has masterfully displayed a clash of the cultures and their false expectations.
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An electrifying moral adventure March 26 2012
By Evelyn A. Getchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The Lower River, an electrifying moral adventure by Paul Theroux, is by turns a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and devastatingly imaginative social critique. It grapples a contemporary truth seldom mentioned but immediately recognized, the white man's incomprehension of Black Africa.

Ellis Hock is an American "everyman," a retired mens' clothier in his sixties who - following an unpleasant divorce from his wife of many years, plus the estrangement of his adult daughter, as well as the loss of his family home - feels compelled to retreat from the society in which he was never truly happy nor to which he feels he ever really belonged.

Hock's deepest and most private desire during the past forty years of living the successful but unfulfilling American Dream in Medford, Massachusetts, has been to return to the remote village in one of the poorest and most under-developed countries in Africa, Malawi, where he was a respected and much-loved teacher for the Peace Corp. It was there during the 1960s in the village of Malabo where Hock was the happiest and most contented in his life... and it is there where he is now destined, to Malabo, the only place Ellis Hock has left to go. Hock will return to the Lower River, to "the measure of his happiness."

I am an armchair escapist greatly attracted to literary travel experiences, so Ellis Hock's journey back to the Lower River (reflecting Theroux's own experiences in Malawi) had me intensely fascinated and thoroughly engaged. No, it is more accurate to say that the impassive cruelty of Theroux's unsympathetic realism snared me, took me in its jaws, sunk its teeth into me and dragged me along with it, never releasing me until the last page and that final sentence were reached. Theroux stole my breath. He not only took me to the malarial setting of Malawi but made me feel every brutal reality that Hock was to encounter there.

THE LOWER RIVER is a hero's journey of Conradian richness - raw, exotic and intimate to read. It is rather evocative of Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" but in a photonegative kind of way, in which the light and the dark are in inverse relation to Campbell's original model. Joe Campbell organized the hero's journey into three sections: "Departure" or the hero's adventure prior to the quest; "Initiation" or the hero's many adventures along the way; and "Return" which involves the hero's return home with knowledge acquired along the journey.

This is also the pattern of Hock's adventure but as Theroux's humid narrative penetrates deeper and deeper into the dark territory of a desperate and dangerous Malawi, Hock's journey on the Lower River leads not to a decisive victory won by the hero, with the hero returning with great power to bestow boons upon his fellow man...no, it leads to desperation, degradation, disintegration and death.

This is a novel of psychological penetration, moral perceptibility, and symbolic power. Hock, the white "everyman" is brought face to face with corruption and despair at the very heart of humanity. "He had come here as a man, with willingness and money, assured of meeting friends and...with a confidence that amounted almost to a sense of superiority." But this proves to become his tragic mistake.

Theroux's treatment of the Sena people of Malawi is realistic without being pandering. "They were not diabolical; they were desperate. But desperation made them cruel and casual."

THE LOWER RIVER is a novel of character complexity with strong undercurrents of social issues. Hock says: "As soon as I arrived the other day, I felt rejuvenated, as I had when I first came here. It's strange the power a white person feels in Africa. It should be the opposite, feeling like the odd man out. But no, a kind of strength is attributed to us."

Hock's self-perception, running parallel with all the white persons' assumptions about their roles in Africa, is challenged in this novel. It is a theme with the intensity of the African sun, fierce and inescapable, but above all, undeniably important. The Lower River is a gripping and haunting but relevant novel... of the most serious purpose.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A superb novel and mesmerizing tale" May 29 2012
By Max Read - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Paul Theroux the author can be as controversial as Paul Theroux the person. He is an accomplished writer and outspoken critic of misguided philanthropic overtures from the likes of Bono, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, whom he labels as "mythomaniacs" content on promoting their largess as a way of convincing the world of their worth. In a "New York Times" (2005) opinion piece, Theroux laments being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star In a cowboy hat (aka Bono); a figure who earns a place as a contemptuous look-a-like in Theroux's novel. He also exploits the detachment of the likes of billionaire Bill Gates (Bono being one of his trusted advisers) for his unproductive and insane idea to send computers to Africa when they need "pencils, paper, mops and brooms".

Theroux's novel "The Lower River" chronicles in the abstract some of Theroux's experiences teaching in Africa. He does this through the exploits of the main character Ellis Hock who had taken a similar trek in life as part of the Peace Corps. Through Ellis Hock, Theroux visualizes "the school[s] where we taught 40 years ago are now in ruins - covered with graffiti, with broken windows, standing in tall grass. Money will not fix this." - For "[T]hey will eat your money and then they will eat you." And it is through this disillusionment that Ellis Hock will become captive to his past, figuratively and literally. Theroux's novel is fundamentally structured in two parts; the one being the story itself the other being Theroux's passion about the underlying destructiveness of misguided largess that reduced a people to be "changed, disillusioned, shabby, lazy, dependent, blaming, [and] selfish" a theme not lost in its similarities to current events in European countries like Spain, France and Greece today.

The story in main is about one Ellis Hock; one of life's losers adrift in a world he can't seem to relate to; someone who sees his life having ended, facing a failed marriage, a failed business and a failure as a father and who now yearns for an earlier time when he was a teacher in Africa for the Peace Corps. Ellis returns to the place in Africa called the Lower River, where he once found happiness and contentment only to discover that all has changed. A witless Hock becomes a pawn and captive in the struggle for survival in a place he no longer understands and a place from which he cannot escape.

Theroux's novel is a fascinating and engaging work. His characters of Ellis Hock and Sena tribal leader Menyanga are tuned to provide a spider and fly sort of plot that will keep the reader on edge right up to the final conclusion.
I highly recommend you add this novel to your reading list and rate it "memorable".
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nail-biter! May 28 2012
By Angel LaCanfora - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ellis Hock is a shlubby, Walter Mitty-esque older man, who leads a traditional, humdrum existence running a tailor shop in Medford, MA. He's a man dutifully living a life thrust upon him by his family. Along with numerous internet flirtations that eventually dismantle his marriage, he's kept afloat in his dreary existence by his fond memories of his happy times teaching in Africa many decades ago. After the dissolution of his 30 year marriage and the shuttering of his shop, he impulsively decides on a visit to the African village where he taught. But almost immediately upon arrival in Africa, he notices changes for the worse. Hock proceeds to make a series of bad decisions that help to ensnare him in yet another existence not of his choosing.

Theroux masterfully captures the anxiety, helplessness and ennui of Hock's life amongst the Sena, where he's being held against his will. His total lack of control, the many threats to his life that abound, both within and outside the village. Hock's only source of pleasure is his young servant girl, Zizi, with whom he wrestles with feelings, alternately lustful and paternal.

I read this book swiftly, within a couple days, because I HAD to know how the heck Hock was going to get out of this mess. I wouldn't call this a pleasant read. Hock's frustration, his suffering, his torment, were palpable on every page. Hock is not a heroic figure but he has heart and you badly want him to be safely transported back home to his non-descript Medford condo, where he belongs.

To sum up, "The Lower River" is an absorbing page-turner. I lost all track of time while reading. A satisfying journey (for the reader, not for Hock!).
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