The Lower River by Paul Theroux

13202128Fiction – print. Houghton Mufflin Harcourt, 2012. 323 pgs. Purchased. 

In the forty years since Ellis Hock left the Peace Corps, his family’s tailoring business in Medford, Massachusetts became a victim of globalization; his wife filed for divorce; and his only child refuses contact with him until she needs money. Now, Hock has decided to return to the remote section of Malawi known as the Lower River where he spent four years serving in the Peace Corp.

Hock quickly learns, though, that you cannot return to a memory. Just as global and local forces have shaped Medford into a place different from the Medford of Hock’s childhood, the Lower River has been shaped by misguided aid efforts, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and political corruption.

Residents who welcome Hock with open arms start dipping their hands into his pockets, insisting they need money to rebuild the school or operate the local clinic or repair the home where Hock is staying and so on. When Hock decides he wants to go home, a band of locals refuse to let him out of the village, forcing Hock to make a series of risky escape attempts and put the granddaughter of the Sena woman he once loved in serious danger.

I admit, I judged this book by its cover. The colors attracted my eye, and I was intrigued by the reflection of the two boys in the boat. I can’t remember if I read the jacket flap before purchasing the book; all I can recall is that I really liked the cover.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the story within. The start was intriguing, especially since I’m familiar with the location where Hock’s business and home were set in America. (Medford shares a subway network with Boston, and I know several friends and now former coworkers who live there.) And, once Hock arrives in Malawi, Theroux paints such a vivid portrait of the country that I was eager to follow the main character downriver.

Until, that is, I reached the line where Theroux tries to warn his main character and his reader of what is to come: “First they will eat your money, then they will eat you”. I thought perhaps the line was meant to be a warning against the white savior complex Hock exhibits in his nostalgia, and Theroux does weave a critique of the celebrity-driven cycle of aid without skill development into the story that is both biting and thought-provoking.

“That seemed to be a feature of life in the country: to welcome strangers, to let them live out their fantasy of philanthropy – a school, an orphanage, a clinic, a welfare center, a malaria eradication program, or a church; and then determine if in any of this effort and expense there was a side benefit – a kickback, a bribe, an easy job, a free vehicle. If the scheme didn’t work – and few of them did work – whose fault was that? Whose idea was it in the first place?”

It quickly becomes apparent this phrase is a literal warning as Hock is physically and psychologically abused by the villagers. There is a clear contempt for the Sena people whom Hock lives among; each Malawi person in the narrative is based on a stereotype about people from Africa, complete with the “natives” giving sixty-two-year-old Hock a sixteen-year-old virgin to cater to his every desire. Um, gross.

I only finished this novel because I had included in my #20BooksofSummer list. Otherwise, I would have set it aside – beautiful cover and all – and moved on to something else.

This is my fourth book for #20BooksofSummer. I know I purchased this book at a used book sale in Boston yet cannot recall the exact date of purchase. I do know it came into my home prior to August 31, 2018 as that is when I shelved it on GoodReads for the first time while cleaning out my bookshelves in anticipation of my move to Colorado.

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