The Lower River

Houghton Harcourt. May 2012. c.336p. ISBN 9780547746500. $25. F
The devastating results of the handout vs. hand-up mentality are on full display in this dark novel of contrasts from Theroux, renowned for the breadth of his work (Dark Star Safari; The Mosquito Coast). Ellis Hock's wife has cut him loose, the family clothing store is obsolete, and his daughter only wants her inheritance. What keeps the 62-year-old sane are his memories of 40 years ago when he taught school in Malawi. A return to Africa might rekindle Ellis's youthful idealism, but the atmosphere is menacing from the moment he arrives; smiling faces hide smoldering resentment, the school he helped build is a shambles, the people are emaciated and guarded. Provided with a hut, Ellis metes out money, bribes for necessities, until solitude and malaria strip him of the strength to fight what feels more like imprisonment than hospitality. Escape is thwarted by a sinister food purveyor and a disturbing encounter with a village of AIDS-ravaged orphans reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.
VERDICT Theroux's latest can be read as straight-up suspense, but those unafraid of following him into the heart of darkness will be rewarded with much to discuss in this angry, ironic depiction of misguided philanthropy in a country dense with natural resources yet unable to feed its people. [See Prepub Alert, 11/7/11.]
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