Theroux's Latest Serious, Suspenseful

Winnipeg Free Press, August 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Theroux's Latest Serious, Suspenseful


American writer Paul Theroux has for years kept up a book-a-year pace, alternating novels with colourful accounts of exotic travel.

(His name is unexpectedly appearing in gossip columns these days, now that his nephew Justin has become actress Jennifer Aniston's fiance.)

As the laureate of lengthy train trips, Paul has often worked on his next piece of fiction while riding the rails. You get the impression that he never wastes a moment or an opportunity.

Little wonder then that the genesis of his engrossing new novel can be traced back to a 2001 visit to Africa. Just turned 60 at the time, Theroux travelled from Cairo to Cape Town, a remarkable journey recorded in his memoir Dark Star Safari (2003). Part of the trip included a return to Malawi, where he taught school for the Peace Corps back in the early 1960s.

In The Lower River, 62-year-old Ellis Hock reaches a critical stage in his life. His men's wear store in Medford, Mass., is losing business, and his wife Deena has turned on him because of flirtatious emails he has sent to female customers, apparently to combat boredom.

For over 35 years, Hock has looked back fondly on the time he spent in the Peace Corps. He helped build, and then taught in, a school in a region of Malawi called the Lower River.

"As a volunteer teacher, in this district of small huts and half-naked people and unpaved roads -- a world made out of mud -- he had been content.... No telephone, only the weekly mail delivery, and sometimes an out-of-date newspaper, already yellow from age, the news irrelevant, overtaken by newer, greater trivia. There was nothing to fear."

It seems time for Hock to sell his business, leave his wife, and pay a return visit to Malabo, the village where he had lived. He decides to do just that.

Theroux has written about Malawi (in East Africa) before -- Jungle Lovers, his fourth novel, published in 1971, is one of his funniest. …

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