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The Lower River [Hardcover]

Paul Theroux
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
RRP: 18.99
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Book Description

31 May 2012

Award winning writer Paul Theroux draws upon personal experience of living in Malawi in his eye-opening novel, about one man's return to an Africa he no longer recognises, The Lower River.

'In the small screen of the rear-view mirror skinny arms and small faces were sucked into the distance, jumping children and staring men, pinched by the receding road and the shaken curtains of elephant grass. From the dark water glinting at the end of trampled paths he saw that he was leaving the river behind, surfacing after months of holding his breath.

'The dust rose up behind the van, a brown rearing dust-snake. Each time he looked there was more dust, uncoiling in pursuit, but so like a dissolving mirage that he stopped looking back, and lifted his eyes from the mirror to the wider road ahead.'

Ellis Hock never believed he would ever return to Africa - to his isolated village where he was happiest. He runs an old-fashioned menswear store in a small town in Massachusetts but still dreams of his Eden in Africa, the four years he spent in Malawi with the Peace Corps, cut short when he had to return to take over the family business. When his wife leaves him, taking the family home, and his daughter demands her share of his eventual will, he realizes that there is one place for him to go: back to Malawi, on the remote Lower River, where he will be happy again.

Arriving at the dusty village he finds it transformed: the school he built is a ruin, the church and clinic are gone, and poverty and apathy have set in amongst the people. They remember him - the foreigner with no fear of snakes - and welcome him back. But is his new life, his journey back, an escape or a trap?

Interweaving memory and desire, hope and despair, salvation and damnation, this is a hypnotic, compelling and brilliant return to a terrain no one has ever written better about than Theroux: the tragic stage of modern Africa, AIDS-ravaged and despairing in the face of creeping consumerism, greed and dependence.

American travel writer Paul Theroux is known for the rich descriptions of people and places that is often streaked with his distinctive sense of irony; his novels and collected short stories, My Other Life, The Collected Stories, My Secret History, The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro, A Dead Hand, Millroy the Magician, The Elephanta Suite, Saint Jack, The Consul's File, The Family Arsenal, The Mosquito Coast, and his works of non-fiction, including the iconic The Great Railway Bazaar are available from Penguin.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (31 May 2012)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0241145325
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241145326
  • Product Dimensions: 3 x 15 x 23.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 289,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Theroux was born and educated in the United States. After graduating from university in 1963, he travelled first to Italy and then to Africa, where he worked as a Peace Corps teacher at a bush school in Malawi, and as a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1968 he joined the University of Singapore and taught in the Department of English for three years. Throughout this time he was publishing short stories and journalism, and wrote a number of novels. Among these were Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers, all of which appear in one volume, On the Edge of the Great Rift (Penguin, 1996).

In the early 1970s Paul Theroux moved with his wife and two children to Dorset, where he wrote Saint Jack, and then on to London. He was a resident in Britain for a total of seventeen years. In this time he wrote a dozen volumes of highly praised fiction and a number of successful travel books, from which a selection of writings were taken to compile his book Travelling the World (Penguin, 1992). Paul Theroux has now returned to the United States, but he continues to travel widely.

Paul Theroux's many books include Picture Palace, which won the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Pillars of Hercules, shortlisted for the 1996 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; My Other Life: A Novel, Kowloon Tong, Sir Vidia's Shadow, Fresh-air Fiend and Hotel Honolulu. Blindness is his latest novel. Most of his books are published by Penguin.

Product Description

About the Author

Paul Theroux's books include Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Elephanta Suite, A Dead Hand and The Tao of Travel. The Mosquito Coast and Dr Slaughter have both been made into successful films. Paul Theroux divides his time between Cape Cod and the Hawaiian islands.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Most of Theroux's more recent works tend to feature a version of the author himself as protagonist: a slightly knackered traveller who visits faraway places that once were joyous and pristine, and have now turned sour. The hero meets wicked people who exploit him as a meal ticket, and is often tempted by exotic young maidens who provide diversion and optimism. The Lower River fully conforms to this pattern, and is the masterpiece of a series that includes great works such as Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific and further back, The Mosquito Coast. Buy and read this book, because it is one of Theroux's best.

A former Peace Corps volunteer, disappointed with the breakdown of his family life and saddened by the decay of a nondescript inner city in America, returns to the Africa of his hopeful and distant youth. Looking to revisit a time in his life when his contribution to a tiny village had meant something, he finds his way back to the remote outpost but soon finds that time has moved on. Instead of being valued for his contribution, a more cynical attitude now prevails among the locals, and our hero soon finds himself struggling to survive, let alone rediscover his self-worth. The author is masterful in building an atmosphere of brooding menace, of wrongful sex, and bacterial materialism at the most simple level of civilisation. The writing is first-rate, the plot is a page-turner, and the local insights and observations are convincingly original and unique.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By A Common Reader TOP 50 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
A novel from Paul Theroux is always welcome and I'm pleased to say that The Lower River is well up to his usual high standard.

As the book opens, we find Ellis Hock with his marriage falling apart and the store reaching the end of its economic life. The marriage break-up is painful, and is not helped by his grasping daughter who wants some of her inheritance long before Ellis is ready to die. Malawi had held a place in Ellis's heart all through his years of tailoring and he decides to have done with his wife, daughter and shop and to return to Africa, to visit Malabo, the village he worked in while in the Peace Corps so many years before.

Nearly forty years has passed since Ellis was last in Africa. The cities have been transformed from slow-moving communities with dirt roads and shabby buildings into modern townscapes with a preponderance of Mercedes cars, cell-phones and upmarket nightclubs.

He visits the American consul and manages to arrange transport to Malabo, taking a minimum of possessions apart from several bundles of dollars, but leaving his cell-phone behind. After a long and arduous journey he reaches the village and makes contact with the head-man Festus Manyenga, a young man in his twenties who addresses Ellis as father and treats him as an honoured guest.

As Ellis gets to know the village he occasionally meets people who knew him when they were children, although they are now old men and women, showing the result of non-existent health care and a life of toil. He visits the school he had helped build and had taught in all those years ago but it apparently decayed long ago: "head-high bushes had grown up around the building. The roof of the classrooms was mostly gone, only brittle pieces remaining. Weeds grew in the eaves.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Lower River 6 Jun 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ellis Hock is at a crossroads in his life. His marriage has broken down, his daughter is not speaking to him, his business has been sold and many empty years of retirement is looming on the horizon. So he decides to go back to the only place he remembers being truly happy - A small village called Malabo on the Lower River in Malawi, where he taught English while he was in the Peace Corps. Where he fell in love, spent many happy hours in blissful occupation, and lived entirely at peace with his surroundings. Over 40 years ago.

But the homecoming Hock has been anticipating (with some apprehension) is not as glorious as he hoped it might be. The Africa he left behind, a country of community, friendliness, naivety, gratitude and culture has been through a violent change. Capitalism, drought, poverty and disease has changed Malabo into a darker place - And Hock finds the tables have turned in the relationship between the villagers and the rich mzungu; White Man.

Theroux has produced an African setting which is pulsating with white heat, dust and dying vegetation. It is vivid and perfectly pitched, you can almost feel the 'corrosive sun' which beats down on Malabo. The narration is hypnotic, slow, as if sedated by the African heat, always intensely atmospheric. There is a tension in the story which feels like an unnamed menace or dark shadow hidden just beyond view, and it compels the reader to turn the pages. You can't help but get drawn in.

It's not all good though - I found Hock's gloomy defeatism frustrating after a while, his pensive self-pity getting in the way of him helping himself too many times.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars The Lower River
I have to read anything this author writes as all his books are a great read, I just think since his 60's he's not been quite so good. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Margarita
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping and informative story
This is Paul Theroux at full strength!

The book is compelling, atmospheric and plausible. Read more
Published 2 months ago by ROGER JOHN MCCARTHY
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious and unsympathetic
I like Theroux' travel writing and I was interested to read another reworking of his Malawian experiences. However this story dragged on and on. I found it unconvincing. Read more
Published 3 months ago by RT
5.0 out of 5 stars chilling and compulsive
Thes is a captivating novel in which a man, Ellis Hock, with his New York life in tatters, decides to revisit the Malawi he knew in his youth. Read more
Published 5 months ago by markr
4.0 out of 5 stars Mixed Messages
This novel has deep roots, going back to when Paul Theroux (PT) worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s. Read more
Published 6 months ago by P. A. Doornbos
3.0 out of 5 stars Vivid description of the truly horrid
I lived in Malawi at the same time as Paul Theroux, whose story in The Lower River seems to come from personal experience.
The book is authentic. Read more
Published 8 months ago by D R Emmott
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Novels are Necessary
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... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Troy Parfitt
4.0 out of 5 stars Good thought provoking rather chilling story
I haven't read Theroux before but enjoyed this book. I was involved with the central character from the start and was carried along by the story and the rather dark and sinister... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Mysay
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly written
It was my past revisited ! Very well written, one of his best. His description of Africa details the smells, sounds and scenes.
Published 10 months ago by Andrew James Taylor
3.0 out of 5 stars Why didn't he just leave?
I have always greatly enjoyed Paul Theroux's travel books, and have found his short stories and his occasional novella (e.g. 'The Greenest Island') satisfying. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Peter D
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