Been there, done that

Cover of The Lower River“Never go back,” they say, “it’ll be completely different.”

Nobody told that to Ellis Hock (the main character in Paul Theroux‘s latest fiction offering The Lower River.) Actually, at the time he decided to return to Malawi, hardly anyone alive was still speaking to Ellis. So back he went, to the place where he had once been so happy.

And don’t tell me you’ve never done this: gone back to a place or a job or a man. Or even a hairstyle. I know I have. So, understandably my heart was heavy at the realisation that our Christmas Book Discussion Scheme novel was The Lower River. I did not anticipate a festive read.

Cover of To Timbuktu for a HaircutIndeed, it was the first of the books that we have read together that my group really disliked. They loathed Ellis, hated the snakes, found it incredibly tense and in parts repetitive. But, and here is the rub, everyone acknowledged that it is sweaty-palms well written. The dark tension ratchets up to the very last page. The “Never Go back” brigade score big time here.

At exactly the same time, the cutely titled To Timbuktu for a Haircut crossed my path. This details a true journey through West Africa (Mali in particular) by Rick Antonson. It has all the chaos that is a hallmark of African travel, endearing characters and the same underlying tension that by the end of the book was escalating to its current sad situation. Antonson loves Africa and yearns to return to Mali. But right now he would not be allowed in.

Cover of THe Hired ManThe Hired Man is not set in Africa, you may be relieved to hear, but is a novel by Aminatta Forna  that is set in Croatia. The main character, Duro, never leaves Croatia. His going back is not about place, it is about time. His past is as real to him as his present. Towards the end of this very gripping read, he says: Some people can never forget, some people choose not to remember.

Some thirteen years ago, in my first year as an immigrant to New Zealand, every night I said to my husband: I want to go home. That is correct: Every. Single. Night. So the topics of going back, or moving on, or running on the spot, are very dear to me.

And here’s what I’ve noticed: there are books that say Never Go back. There are books about Moving On and there are books where no one goes anywhere at all. But where is the book about going back and loving it? Does such a beast even exist?

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