“The Lower River” by Paul Theroux (2012) – 323 pages
Ellis Hock, our main protagonist in “The Lower River”, is a sixty-two year-old family man living in Medford, Massachusetts, who owns and runs his own small clothing store. There are not many customers left for his well-tailored clothes, since nearly everyone now shops for cheaper clothes at the big box stores.
Ellis frequently reminisces about the four years he spent with the Peace Corps in Malawi in southeastern Africa nearly forty years ago. That was a heady time for both Ellis and Malawi. At that time Ellis, with the help of Malawian villagers, built a school there, and then he taught in the school. Ellis was there for the celebration when Malawi achieved its independence from Great Britain. This was an idealistic time for Malawi, and Ellis Hock was a part of it. He considers the years spent in Malawi as the best years of his life.
When his marriage falls apart unexpectedly, Ellis decides to sell his clothing store and head back to Malawi to the same village he lived in during those four Peace Corps years.
If you are at all interested in what is happening to the people in southeastern Africa including Malawi and Mozambique today, this is the novel for you. Paul Theroux is entirely reliable when writing about this part of Africa. He sugarcoats nothing. Yes, things are as bad as we hear and read in the news. However, the news does not tell the story of the individual people living in the villages today, and Theroux captures the people’s story exceedingly well.
When Ellis arrives back in his old village, he finds that the village, like many in Africa, is controlled by a strong man. The school Ellis built has been shut down for many years, and the building is sitting empty and is falling apart and rotting. No one in the village is interested in re-building the school. The villagers want only one thing from Ellis, and that is his money. Who can blame the villagers, who are hungry?
“Speaking about the past here was like speaking about a foreign land – happier, simpler, much bigger and highly colored, seemingly above ground.”
Yet the village Ellis is living in is one of the luckier villages. Travelling only a short distance from this village, he encounters a village made up entirely of children. All of the adults have died of AIDS, malaria, or other diseases. Apparently there are many of these children’s villages in Malawi and Mozambique. These villages are called “the Place of the Thrown-Aways”.
Certainly there are charities which are attempting to provide medical supplies, food, and clothing to these villages in Malawi. Instead of integrating the distribution of supplies into the life of each village, some of the charities tend to use airdrops instead, perhaps because the volunteers do not want to be exposed to AIDS. Theroux tells of one of the charity airdrops where food and supplies are lowered into the children’s village and some of the kids grab boxes lowered near them from the airplane. However soon bigger boys take the boxes away from the littler kids, and soon adult strongmen from other villages arrive to take the boxes away from the bigger boys.
As I mentioned before, Paul Theroux is utterly reliable in getting the details of this story right. One example I found particularly apt was when he describes the dress of the children in one of these children’s villages. Most of the children are wearing only one article of clothing, a cheap T-shirt with a slogan like ‘Willow Bend Fun Run’, ‘Rockland Lobster Festival’, or ‘Bob’s Bluegrass Bar’. I can just picture the charity drives in suburbs all over the world, and the middle class people getting rid of all their ridiculous T-shirts.
“The Lower River” is definitely not an uplifting story; it is more of a horror story than anything else. Paul Theroux has done an excellent job of making this story exciting and interesting. I have admired many of Paul Theroux’s novels and stories, and “The Lower River’ is another strong work.