Review: 'The Lower River'

Alan Cheuse reviews the new novel, The Lower River by Paul Theroux. Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Paul Theroux has published more than a dozen works of nonfiction, mainly travel books, as well as more than two dozen novels. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, says Theroux's latest novel - it's called "The Lower River" - is a must read.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Ellis Hock is getting a divorce. His only child is sniping at him about money. His business is sinking. This New England shopkeeper, at 60, has seen better days, mainly about 40 years before when he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, specifically in the village of Malabo, among the Sena people of the Lower River region of Malawi.

As his own life collapses, Hock decides to return to the Lower River, bringing memories and a pack full of money, but a lot has changed in Malabo, all for the worse. The school he helped to build has closed. The clinic he established has shut down and the descendents of the people he recalls as his friends have lapsed into a life of poverty, beggary and worse.

Hock felt like a captive of his old life in New England. His daily dealings with the local head man in Malabo make him see that he's become a literal captive of the Sena. Layer upon layer of claustrophobia overtake you as you read about this, from the menacing scene in which Hock recalls his youthful attempt at a seduction of the school teacher during his first visit through his present day dangerous affection for his teenage housekeeper.

The Lower River becomes his underworld and his story, a deeply engrossing narrative about the horrors of personal change and social transformation. No heart of darkness here. In the impoverished Africa Paul Theroux depicts, it's more heartlessness that becomes so oppressive in a novel that sheds light on timeless subjects.

SIEGEL: That's Alan Cheuse recommending Paul Theroux's latest novel, "The Lower River."

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