The Lower River by Paul Theroux
Ellis is a middle-aged, small town guy who runs a menswear store. Not so much through a desire to sell clothing as through familial duty. His business, like his marriage, is fading. The gift of a new smart phone hastens the demise of both when his email “flirting” is revealed. Even though he doesn’t have much of a life, he is still among the living when his daughter wants her cut of his will.
With matters settled and nothing to stop him, Ellis decides on going to the last place he believes he was happy. He returns to Malawi on the remote Lower River, where as a youth he had spent a few years in the Peace Corps. Back then he had to abruptly return to Massachusetts, but wistfully still thinks about people he left behind and the village where he lived and worked.
When he arrives in the village he is saddened by the disrepair of the buildings he helped to construct, but this is secondary to the quiet desperation of the people living there. Some of the older tribal members have memories of him; however most of the new generations only know him through stories.
They treat Ellis like a revered elder, but you are not convinced they respect and admire him. Money might be the object of their affection or maybe the allure of the outside world. Is he the guest of a blissful tribe of people or the prisoner of people who wish him harm? It isn’t long before you wonder, but really can’t decide. Honestly, without going into a lot of the plot details I can’t justly describe this novel. It is a literary thriller, very intense and complex up to the very end.
There are pieces of the real life Theroux in the fictional protagonist inspired perhaps by the author’s younger years in the Peace Corps. I have spent some time volunteering in a place where I have seen poverty and desolation like Theroux so deftly describes. It does make people desperate and you really feel this while reading. His depiction of celebrity orchestrated food drops and what ensues after they return to their heavily guarded compound may be treated as fiction, but satirically exposes the reality of misguided good intentions and feel good humanitarian projects.
Frankly there are places where I found myself slightly on the verge of panic out of anxiety for what might happen next. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but I couldn’t resist either. It was very difficult to separate fact from fiction. A very thought provoking and philosophical read I highly recommend. Those familiar with Theroux will be requesting this book, and new readers will then want to check out his previous works.
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