Like Theroux himself, the protagonist of his novel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in his twenties. Ellis Hock recalls this period of his life sentimentally and, when his life in America seems to fall apart 40 years later, he decides to return.
Malabo, the village in the Lower River area of Malawi, is, however, not as he remembers it. The school where he taught lies derelict and abandoned and the people are lethargic and lacking in optimism.
Hock's stay soon takes on a nightmarish quality as he becomes a victim of the pitiless Manyenga, chief of the the village and the starving, poverty-stricken villagers who follow him mindlessly.
I found this story as disturbing as it is compelling. The brutal reality of AIDS-ridden Africa and the dilemma of the effectiveness of international aid organisations are palpable throughout. Hock's experiences are both riveting and horrifying. The characters - from Zizi, the gentle young woman whose grandmother Hock had fallen in love with as a young man, to the power-hungry and compassion-free Manyenga - are strong and authentic. Theroux's masterful writing had me responding with compassion or repulsion to each in turn.
This powerful novel has brought reviewers to compare it in style and subject matter to Conrad's Heart of Darkness and for me it evoked scenes from Lloyd Jones' Mr Pip and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Highly recommended.
Title: The Lower River
Author: Paul Theroux
Publisher: Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt