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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Lower River

Paul Theroux

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To purchase The Lower River

Title: The Lower River
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 323 pages
Availability: The Lower River - US
The Lower River - UK
The Lower River - Canada
The Lower River - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dark horror tale; Theroux in fine form

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A 16/5/2012 Keith Staskiewicz
Financial Times . 15/6/2012 Carl Wilkinson
The Guardian . 31/5/2012 Christopher Hope
The LA Times C- 20/5/2012 Carolyn Kellogg
The NY Rev. of Books . 7/6/2012 Norman Rush
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/5/2012 Patrick McGrath
The Telegraph A 7/6/2012 Mark Sanderson

  From the Reviews:
  • "More in the tradition of The Heart of the Matter than Heart of Darkness, The Lower River is also largely a character study, and Theroux never lets Hock drift into a caricature of the self-aggrandizing white interloper." - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(T)his is not simply travel writing wrapped in an autobiographical novel: The Lower River is both a fable of decline and a chilling thriller. (...) The Lower River is a dark and disenchanted examination of Africa in the 21st century, and a heart-breaking portrait of a ruined community. That it is underpinned by Theroux’s deep and undimmed affection for the continent only makes his novel all the more powerful." - Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times

  • "One of the many admirable things about this novel is that Theroux's affection for the country never slackens, even as he savages the lies, theft and thuggery of local leaders, and the iron-hearted do-goodery of foreign aid agencies, which have rendered those who were once poor but viable poorer, unhappier and more dependent than ever." - Christopher Hope, The Guardian

  • "If Theroux wants to teach us lessons -- and it is clear from his nonfiction writing that he does -- it is unfortunate that he relied on such stale tropes. He knows so much about this unheralded southeast corner of Africa -- this book includes capable descriptions of place, interwoven with the language and culture of the Sena -- and yet the story he tells is predictable, peopled with stock bit players, and disappointingly familiar." - Carolyn Kellogg, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Lower River confounds. (...) Theroux's practiced hand in the matter of dialogue and scene-making is strongly in evidence. No one will nod off reading The Lower River. (...) The Lower River may be Paul Theroux's most unnerving novel, but it's not his strongest, or his most richly developed." - Norman Rush, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Lower River is riveting in its storytelling and provocative in its depiction of this African backwater, infusing both with undertones of slavery and cannibalism, savagery and disease. Theroux exposes the paternalism of Hock’s Peace Corps nostalgia, his "sense of responsibility, almost the conceit of ownership." That sense of responsibility, and Hock’s modest contribution to the welfare of a people he was once genuinely fond of, has been replaced by a harsher mode of operation, run by coldhearted contractors living apart in impregnable compounds." - Patrick McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Theroux has never written a better novel than The Lower River." - Mark Sanderson, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central character of The Lower River is Ellis Hock. In his early sixties, he's led a fairly successful, comfortable life. He took over the family menswear store in Medford, Massachusetts, and did reasonably well with it; he has a wife and daughter. Even so, it's turned out to be a life of some dissatisfaction, and this feeling, creeping in as he becomes more reflective with age, comes to a head when his wife gives him a 'smartphone' for his sixty-second birthday: everything that had been going south almost instantly collapses (though rather quietly and gently: collapse, here, is almost entirely civilized).
       It doesn't feel catastrophic to Hock. Business has been bad for a while, and he had long known the store was unsustainable in the long run, but since he owned the space he knew he could at least cash out on the real estate, as he eventually does. He and his wife separate, but it's a slow, careful adjustment. As to his daughter -- well, she had already distanced herself, and has no problem with an almost complete break, as she coldly demands her inheritance-cut of the building sale proceeds now, in case Hock should remarry and then leave everything to his new family.
       The daughter's actions are shocking, but her instincts are right. Hock has no real attachments, but he is searching for some; the small family he was part of failed, but he is obviously looking for connections somewhere. This is also what led to the collapse of his marriage, when his wife found out about all the women he had been in e-mail contact with. Hock wasn't straying, but he was seeking, desperately reaching out in the hope that he would find someone with whom to connect. Similarly, when he eventually sets out on his grand expedition, he is desperate to share the news:

     He wanted someone to be interested. More than that, he wanted someone to know where he was going -- someone who'd still be there when he returned, someone to tell his stories to, someone to look at his pictures. He could not go without someone knowing. Leaving without a farewell was too depressing, too spooky, like a ghost dissolving, vanishing into the woodwork.
       Similarly, when he arrives in Malawi, before venturing further, he (sensibly) contacts the consulate and befriends someone there, and also seeks out an old-timer. Again:
It was a good thing that Fogwill knew he was going to the Lower River -- someone else to say farewell to, someone else to have him in mind, like Gilroy at the consulate.
       Hock chooses abandonment and isolation -- he literally flings his smartphone away, and cuts off most means of contact; he chooses not to bring a mobile phone with him to Africa; he eventually ventures to a place that, if not unreachable is one that is not a destination: practically no one ever comes or goes there. Yet despite all that, Hock also wants attachment -- to be thought of, and more -- but he demands it on his (unrealistic) terms. His greatest fear -- which eventually turns out to be a very valid and realistic one -- is of simply being forgotten, of no one knowing where he is
       Hock ventures to Malawi because he had spent what he calls: "The happiest years of his life" there, in the isolated village of Malabo, close to the Mozambique border, among the Sena, as a Peace Corps volunteer. He had spent four years there, and only left because he had to. Looking back on that time, he convinces himself again:
The Lower River became the measure of his happiness; he was happiest most of all because he'd been cut off. No telephone, only the weekly mail delivery, and sometimes an out-of-date newspaper, already yellow from age, the news irrelevant, overtaken by newer, greater trivia. There was nothing to fear. No one had any money. He'd hated to leave; he'd longed to return.
       Isolation seems an ideal; of course it soon becomes Hock's nightmare, as he tries to retrace his steps from some four decades earlier and returns to Malabo, which is still as off the beaten track as it was in his day. The school he had helped build has been abandoned and fallen into hopeless disrepair; even Hock quickly realizes that his ambition to fix it up again is entirely hopeless. And while there still is a sense of the idyllic to this place, there's also a sinister feel. Hock is treated as a respected guest, yet, as soon becomes apparent, he is also clearly a prisoner.
       One local woman he knew from his earlier time there explains the difference between then and now to him:
     "That was a special period," she said. "Maybe you could call it an era. People were hopeful in a way they hadn't been before. After some few years the hope was gone. You had left by then, back to your people."
     "I thought of the Sena as my people," Hock said. "What happened ?"
     "Nothing happened. That was the badness. People expected a miracle, and when the miracle didn't come they were angry. You see these young people in Malabo -- all over the Lower Liver. They are so angry. What do you think ?"
       Hock realizes his misstep early on: he wants something from the locals -- his fantasy of recreating that happiest time of his life -- but they have grown cynical:
Altruism was unknown. Forty years of aid and charities and NGOs had taught them that. Only self-interested outsiders trifled with Africa, so Africa punished them for it.
       And he is warned:
     "They will eat your money," she said. "When your money is gone, they will eat you."
       If there is an uneasy tension in Malabo -- where Hock is attended to by his old friend's sixteen-year-old grand-daughter and a dwarf named Snowdon (who frequently eerily intones: "Fee-dee-dom" -- 'freedom' -- in a helpless, mocking cry) -- beyond it is a perverted Darwinian world in which Hock can not survive. In his attempts to escape from Malabo he winds up in a Lord of the Flies-like village of abandoned children, many of whom have AIDS and lost their parents to it; he also encounters the sinister (and creepily appropriately named) L'Agence Anonyme, who helicopter aid across the region and offer pop stars photogenic opportunities of doing good in the wild but are clearly meant to be seen as a malevolent outside force, upsetting any local natural balance and perverting the local ecology and economy.
       Hock's one useful talent is his interest in and way with snakes, which the locals are all afraid of. Hock is, for better and worse, a snake-man, and many of those who deal with him treat him with the wary respect and hatred they have for snakes. Several times he brandishes snakes in his only possible shows of power -- but while the snakes can keep danger at some bay, his ease with them also reinforces the image of him as an other, a person who does not belong (and who can be treated and disposed like an object).
       Theroux describes a strange world where there is a superficial sense of decorum, even as all the players know that they are just playing at a game and going through some motions. Hock is nominally treated as honored guest and chief, yet all parties know that it is for little more than the sake of some appearance. He is not openly mocked, but there is no real respect; an intruder, he also has little, other than his money, to offer them -- and is himself often torn between self-control or using the power he has over, for example, the teenage innocent, Zizi, who serves him, knowing he can manipulate her for his own purposes.
       Of course, this world Theroux describes is nothing other than civilization itself -- a more or less polished surface covering and hiding the primal. In Malabo, the veneer is threadbare but still prominent; outside it, in the backlands of the Lower River, there are no traces of it. This is what Hock sees and learns.
       Hock can not save himself; if he is saved at all, it is almost by luck and happenstance (indeed, the ending has far too much of a deus ex machina-feel to it). Hock can and does reach out to offer what might be considered salvation to one character -- but only after he has been responsible for her complete destruction -- a first step towards redemption that Theroux makes much too easy for his protagonist.
       The Lower River isn't so much a novel of Africa as it is a study of old age and of human connection. Malabo is merely the site that magnifies all that is wrong in Hock's life: his failure in a nutshell (much as it is also a stark microcosm of civilization itself, simply a more elemental, stripped-down-to-basics (and hence laid bare) version of what can be found in, say, Medford). With only a fool (the "Fee-dee-dom"-crying dwarf) and an innocent (Zizi) as his companions, Hock is a modern Lear, his life-long failure at connecting with other human beings leaving him cut off, alone, lost, -- and, of course, doomed.
       Surprisingly, The Lower River isn't a deeply pessimistic work. Theroux opts for what amounts to an uplifting ending, and in presenting his Hock as deluded (and, for example, the aid agencies as entirely self-serving) suggests this isn't the way it has to be. If he had just accepted his wife's generous gift of the smartphone, if he had just embraced the possibility of connection, if he had not reached out but rather reached back when others reached, if he didn't get along so well with those snakes .....
       Familiar with the territories -- both personal isolation and 'darkest' Africa (Theroux did his own Peace Corps tour in this very area) -- Theroux has fashioned a solid and often unsettling thriller.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 May 2012

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The Lower River: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2012-2024 the complete review

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