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.
The Lower River is not only a story about returns, but is itself a return. Theroux has a long association with Malawi. Like Hock, he grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, joined the Peace Corps in the early 1960s, and worked in Malawi where he helped establish a school. Accused of