Theroux has recaptured the sweep and density of his 1981 masterpiece The Mosquito Coast. That’s some achievement.

THE LOWER RIVER

A joyful return to Africa turns into a nightmare for the elderly American protagonist of Theroux’s extraordinary novel. 

As a young man, Ellis Hock loved teaching in Malawi for the Peace Corps, happiest years of his life. (Theroux did a hitch there; see his early novel Jungle Lovers.) Then he had to return to suburban Boston to run the men’s-clothing store he’d inherited. Thirty-five years later, the store and his marriage having failed, he returns to Malawi for a nostalgia-induced vacation. He’s warned on arrival that people are hungry and only want money, but he heads into the bush with a bagful of it, another mzungu (white man) who knows best. Malabo, the remote riverbank village where he’s remembered as the mzungu who helped build the school and clinic, gives him a warm welcome, but Hock’s disillusion sets in fast. The school is a ruin; the visiting doctor is a quack; AIDS is rampant; requests for money are constant. The villagers keep him under surveillance at the direction of the headman Manyenga, who is all smiles and lies. One bright spot is his reunion with Gala, the woman he loved, and the presence of her 16-year-old granddaughter Zizi, who waits on Hock and is fiercely loyal to him. The snakes, too, are a blessing. They terrify the villagers, but Hock handles them fearlessly, using them as protection once he realizes he is being held captive. He makes three escape attempts. The second takes him downriver into Mozambique. There Hock runs into a community of starving but deadly children and a food drop, horribly bungled by white Westerners; these scenes are devastating. All his escapes are foiled by the formidable Manyenga. The suspense is enriched by Theroux’s loving attention to local customs and his subversive insights. As Hock weakens in body and spirit, Zizi just grows stronger. Could she be his savior? 

Theroux has recaptured the sweep and density of his 1981 masterpiece The Mosquito Coast. That’s some achievement. 

Pub Date: May 22, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-74650-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

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While the love triangle is interesting, perhaps most compelling is the story of one woman's single-minded pursuit of her...

LITTLE GODS

Love and ambition clash in a novel depicting China's turbulent 1980s.

Jin's debut is at heart a mystery, as a young Chinese American woman returns to China to try to understand her recently deceased mother's decisions and to find her biological father. Liya grew up with a single mother, the brilliant but troubled physicist Su Lan, who refused to talk about Liya's missing father. Mother and daughter grew increasingly estranged as Su Lan obsessed over her theoretical research. Complicating Liya's search for truth is the fact she was born in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the very night of the government crackdown on the protesters at Tiananmen Square. Su Lan changed Liya's birth year on her papers to obscure this fact in America. The reader is meant to wonder if Liya's father perhaps died during the crackdown. However, this is not a novel about the idealism of the student reform movement or even the decisions behind the government's use of lethal force. Instead Jin focuses on the personalities of three students: the young Su Lan as well as Zhang Bo and Li Yongzong, two of her high school classmates who were rivals for her affection. The novel shifts point of view and jumps back and forth in time, obscuring vital pieces of information from the reader in order to prolong the mystery. Not all the plot contrivances make sense, but Su Lan is a fascinating character of a type rarely seen in fiction, an ambitious woman whose intellect and drive allow her to envision changing the very nature of time. The title refers to the thoughts of a nurse, musing about the similarities that she sees between the Tiananmen student demonstrators and the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution: "A hunger for revolution, any Great Revolution, whatever it stands for, so long as where you stand is behind its angry fist. Little gods, she thinks."

While the love triangle is interesting, perhaps most compelling is the story of one woman's single-minded pursuit of her ambition.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-293595-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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  • New York Times Bestseller

  • Booker Prize Winner

THE TESTAMENTS

Atwood goes back to Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.

Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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