The Lower River, Paul Theroux’s twenty-seventh novel, is a story about a return. 62-year-old Ellis Hock travels to Malabo, a village in Malawi. Four decades earlier, he had chosen this tiny part of drought-ravaged Africa over conscription and the jungles of Vietnam.
The ageing Hock is moved by a different desire to escape: memories of building a school for the Sena tribe in Malabo provide a safe haven from a recent divorce and an ungrateful, money-grabbing daughter. ‘He was happy in the Lower River,’ Theroux states before upping the ante: ‘Supremely happy.’ Eventually, only a superlative will do: ‘The happiest days of his life.’ Readers need only attend to the nostalgia and the cliché to guess that Hock’s buoyancy will not last long.