“The Lower River” by Paul Theroux – A Novel about Southeastern Africa Today

“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.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Tony,
    We read about these things, about how AIDS is tearing through Africa like a wildfire, and we forget about them like we forget most horrors. but a book like this really wakes you up, doesn’t it?
    Thanks for the wonderful review!



    • Hi Amrito,
      It is a struggling time for the people and countries of most of Africa,and I just read that Malawi has a new woman President, Joyce Banda, who is trying to fix things up, make things better. Good luck to her.



  2. Posted by Ron on June 26, 2012 at 10:48 PM

    Almost finished this book. It is quite riveting, as usual Theroux tries to show the world as it is, observing it. He wrote about the charity industry in Dark Star Safari.



    • Hi Ron,
      Paul Theroux has been writing so steadily and so well for such a long time, that the critics seem to take him for granted. But he is one of the few United States world class writers. I discovered him in the Seventies and still get a charge out of reading his novels and stories. I usually read fiction so haven’t read ‘Dark Star Safari’, but he makes some strong points about the charity industry in ‘The Lower River’.



      • Posted by Ron on June 27, 2012 at 12:08 AM

        I discovered him via The Old Patagonian Express. His fiction was a tougher sell for me but it has grown on me over the last few years. He keeps things in the here and now, not as we would wish it but the stark reality. There are so many brilliantly written paragraphs in all his books.



        • I remember his travel books were quite famous from the beginning. the first three were ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, “The Old Patagonian Express’ which you mention, and ‘The Kingdom by the Sea’ which is about England. He’s also an excellent short story writer.



  3. Hi Tony, just found this while googling news on Malawi. I am reading Dark Star Safari at the moment, but as the book is written in 2003, i was wondering what conditions in Malawi are at the moment. I can certainly recommend the book its very interesting and quite objectively written. You can feel Pauls passion for Africa though. I have never been there, and while reading this it makes me curious. I also wonder why Aids has hit Africa so hard, i do believe in divine intervention and faith, and could imagine that it has to do something with attitude of the people. Mostly when we do not see that something has to change, god keeps knocking on our door…
    I may read the book you suggest, but can handle only so much misery at a time..



    • HI Andy,
      “Dark Star Safari” does sound like a fascinating non-fiction book. I suppose part of the problem with AIDs in Africa is that they cannot afford the expensive drugs used to control it in western countries. And also, like you said it could be a symptom of the people giving up hope. I don’t believe in a god that is punishing the people, but the people themselves mught have lost faith and fall into an AIDS lifestyle. I do believe Theroux is quite an objective observer, and it is good that he is still willing to focus on Africa despite their difficulties.



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