cover image The Lower River

The Lower River

Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25 (336p) ISBN 978-0-547-74650-0

Theroux (Hotel Honolulu) draws on personal experience and literary antecedents (think Heart of Darkness) for his latest adventurous tale. Ellis Hock, 62, has a marriage in shambles, an estranged daughter, and a failing business. Hoping to escape the modern world and put his money and time to good use, he leaves Massachusetts for a place rich with fonder memories—a village in the Lower River district of Malawi, where Ellis served with the Peace Corps for four years in his 20s. But Malabo is not the quaint community that he left decades ago—the people are more suspicious and reticent. Perhaps interaction with Western NGOs has changed them, or maybe it’s just that Hock’s youthful optimism has dimmed with age. But the village remembers him—the mzungu who doesn’t fear snakes—and Hock finds himself ensnared in a situation far more complex than anything he expected. A somewhat slow exposition and occasional repetition aside, Theroux successfully grafts keen observations about the efficacy of international aid and the nature of nostalgia to a swift-moving narrative through a beautifully described landscape. Agent: Jin Auh, the Wylie Agency. (May)