Lower River by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux, author of Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cape Town to Cairo and many other novels and travel narratives, has written a taut and tense story about sixty-something Ellis Hock. Having spent forty years minding the family haberdashery before and since his father’s death while marrying and raising a daughter, Ellis now finds himself single after his wife discovers his emails to a variety of women. While the messages aren’t erotic, they reveal a certain intimacy of thought with women who had shopped in his men’s clothing store. After the divorce, he’s lonely and realizes he has been for a long time, remembering only one truly happy period of his life: his four years in the Peace Corps teaching in a tiny Malawi village.

Ellis decides to fly to Africa with an open-ended ticket, intending to stay several weeks and visit Malabo. On his arrival, he discovers the village has changed, and for the worse. The elders are mostly dead with only one or two people left who remember his years with them building a school and teaching in it. The village’s headman is a seemingly pleasant fellow in his thirties, but Ellis is canny enough to realize he is welcome to stay only because of his satchel of money which he hands out in dribs and drabs. Days go by with things promised by the headman not done and when Ellis decides to leave, his attempts to depart the isolated village are thwarted at every turn and take a decidedly sinister turn.

This novel is an interesting picture of cultural differences, and though Ellis is aware how the villagers think from his previous experience, there is no meeting point with them. He is viewed by the poverty stricken locals as a source of riches and always as an outsider. If you’re thinking of retiring to a cheap foreign locale, read this book.

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