Books Magazine

The Lower River by Paul Theroux Delights Most Critics

By Periscope @periscopepost

Malawi, where The Lower River is set. Photo: Jack Zalium

The background

The Lower River by Paul Theroux is about an American, Ellis Hock, who returns to Africa, where he taught for a few years as a young man. In America, he runs a family clothing business; when his wife finds some compromising emails on his phone, she files for divorce, and he flees, hoping to find happiness in Malawi in the village where he lived. But what he does find is much more complicated than that.

 It’s masterly

The book’s “all about being misunderstood: madly, wildly and very nearly fatally,” said Christopher Hope in The Guardian. The book, with its “evident autobiographical underpinnings, rings exactly right.” It’s “masterly, moving”, showing how “africa ensnares and enchants and plays merry hell with sentimentalities.” But even as Theroux “savages the lies, theft and thuggery” of the Africans, he never loses affection for the place. Hock’s “decline” is “heartbreaking.” It’s “savage, sometimes shocking”, and will “cause some consternation – and so much the better if it does.”

 Theroux has never written a better novel

Mark Sanderson in The Sunday Telegraph said that Theroux described Africa “with his trademark precision.” There’s a “masterful” sense of menace. In fact, he’s “never written a better novel.”

 It’s darkly chilling

In its DNA, said Philip Womack in The Daily Telegraph, “lurks Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust,” as well as “Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Snakes are “potent images” – “ambiguous symbols” slithering through the text, which is “carved in solemn, sleek sentences of acute descriptive ability.” It’s a “darkly chilling account of a world gone out of joint.”

 It’s not very nice about Africa

Whilst this book is “a proper novel,” said James Walton in The Daily Mail, “Nonetheless, the overwhelming impression left by the book is of a disillusionment with Africa that borders on despair.”

It’s repetitive and disappointing

Paul Theroux often repeats himself, said Leo Robson in The Sunday Times, and here he engages “with ideas of repetition and return.” The Malawi here is that of Dark Star Safari, directly reflecting Theroux’s own experience of a return to Africa. He never manages to animate Hock. But the novel’s real problem is that it “ties realism about the present to romanticism about the past.” Africa is exoticised “twice over.” And Theroux has a “weakness for melodrama,” too.

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