Book Review: The Lower River

The Lower RiverThe Lower River by Paul Theroux
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: May 22, 2012
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

Ellis Hock never believed that he would return to Africa. He runs an old-fashioned menswear store in a small town in Massachusetts but still dreams of his Eden, the four years he spent in Malawi with the Peace Corps, cut short when he had to return to take over the family business. When his wife leaves him, and he is on his own, he realizes that there is one place for him to go: back to his village in Malawi, on the remote Lower River, where he can be happy again.

Arriving at the dusty village, he finds it transformed: the school he built is a ruin, the church and clinic are gone, and poverty and apathy have set in among the people. They remember him—the White Man with no fear of snakes—and welcome him. But is his new life, his journey back, an escape or a trap?

The Lower River was Conversati-ohm’s (one of my monthly book clubs) August pick. We had a robust discussion about it even though not everyone liked it. I had mixed feelings about it myself. I didn’t care for most of the characters and that made it hard to like the book overall. Ellis is so selfish and self-righteous that I couldn’t bring myself to have any sympathy for him when his trip to Malawi didn’t go as planned. At one point, he needs a letter delivered and something extremely awful happens to the deliverer. When Ellis goes to see the person who was supposed to deliver the letter after the awful thing happens, all he can ask about is whether the awful thing happened before the letter got to its destination. That scene literally made me sick to my stomach.

However, Ellis’s selfishness did make me think a lot about Westerners coming to “help” people in third-world countries. What is the true motivation for helping? Is everyone helping out of the goodness of their hearts or because of the feelings of superiority one might get from helping? Are we giving them the help they need or the help WE THINK they need?

Even though I didn’t really enjoy reading this book, it did end up being a good book for discussion purposes and one that I thought about for a while after I finished it.

(Trivia: Paul Theroux is Jennifer Aniston’s fiance, Justin Theroux’s, uncle.)

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  • Harvee

    I can see where Theroux might not appeal to every reader. I’ve read several of his lengthy travel books and a few of his novels and enjoyed them though found them controversial as well. Would love to read this one too.