Paul Theroux is a prolific writer with 14 fiction novels and 11 non-fiction books. This latest fiction is The Lower River (ISBN978-0-241-95774-5, Penguin, 2013), which is set in Africa. Theroux is well known for his incisive travel writings and for his attention to detail, and that is seen both in his fiction and non-fiction writings.
One of the secrets of good writing is for the author to write about something he or she actually knows, and this is a ploy that Theroux uses. The central character in this book (Ellis Hock) has a store in Medford, a small decaying town. Theroux was born in Medford, so he knows the locale intimately.
Hock had spent his early years in the American Peace Corps and was stationed in Malawi, a posting that he extended to almost four years, only returning to the US when his father died.
After that, he was sucked into the everyday life of middle class America, with the house, marriage, children, but when his marriage fell apart he has time to review his situation and returns to the African village where he had spent an idyllic time 40 years previously.
Unfortunately, he discovers that Buddhist truism, that all of life is change, and the village where he worked 40 years previously has changed as well. And not necessarily for the good.
Theroux describes the obliqueness that can be shown by native races (true for Thailand as well as Africa), and how confusing this can be for the more straightforward westerner.
The story uses flashbacks to heighten the differences between Hock’s life in the US, and the present reality of trying to revisit his idyll of 40 years ago, and the reality is just so much poorer than the memory.
In some parts of the book, it changes from memories to a horror story of malice and menace, from which he seems unable to escape. To bring the narrative right up to today, Hock discovers a community of AIDS related orphans, and how they manage without adults or any mature governance.
Theroux also brings in an NGO Aid Agency, and is less than complimentary about the way these NGO’s operate, with ‘good deeds’ dependent upon publicity (which in turn brings in donations).
The primitive nature of the native culture is explored for the reader, giving one the feeling of being there and understanding. Even though it may be horrific. And make no mistake about it, the denouement will have you gasping with disbelief that this type of subhuman behavior can co-exist in a world that prides itself on how far it has gone with sophistication and noble human endeavor.
On the shelves at B. 468 in the Bookazine store in The Avenue Second Road, this is a superb book, written by a most articulate writer. The descriptions of the surroundings in Africa have that true to life feel about them, showing Theroux’s travel writing skills, and then integrated with a plausible fictional novel. A literary gem and a bargain as well. This book is well in the running for the novel of the year in my opinion.