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The idea of packing up, taking off to sunnier climes and leading a new, more simple life seems to be a popular one these days. There are ever increasing numbers of television shows following stressed businessmen who give up the rat race of the daily commute and long hours at work to take their families to some quiet spot in the hope of spending more time together and showing the kids that its not all about computer games and shopping malls. The Mosquito Coast" was first published in 1981 but the the central idea is one which many people can identify with today.
Allie Fox, the central character of "The Mosquito Coast" dreamed of doing just that and so he packs up and takes his family to live in the remote Honduran jungle. Allie is a wonderful, if exasperating, character: he is sick of modern life and dreams of living self-sufficiently. He wants no longer to be part of a world dependent on cars and modern appliances and is he is very vocal in his demands. He is fed up with fast foods, terrible television, poor workmanship and low quality imported wares. Allie is essentially a tortured genius, he knows exactly what he wants but he forgets the rest of his family and pays no attention to their wants and needs. The story is told through one of his sons, Charlie. Although he is young, he is not naive and the voice which comes through is not that of a child, it is, rather, the sarcastic humour and cutting wit which readers familiar with Paul Theroux will recognise.
"The Mosquito Coast" begins as an adventure story as the family leave Hatfield, Massachussetts and arrive in Honduras, making their way across country until Allie has found a spot he is happy with. Allie chooses Honduras for two reasons, one is becuase it seems to him to be sufficiently remote and secondly because he is interested in the lifestyle of the local people, having met some Honduran migrant workers through his job. At this point the family is largely behind Allie. There are moments when the kids and their mother want to go home, but on the whole, the family pull together to try to make things work.
However, as time passes, the story takes a marked change. Allie becomes increasingly immune to the requests of his family and more blinkered in his aims. He demands total loyalty from his clan but again and again he puts them in danger because of his improbable schemes. Allie Fox changes from his original persona - that of an eccentric family man, tired of the twentieth century but wanting a better life for his family - to an altogether more worrying person. Not only are things not as they imagined they would be, but he is guilty of being a little bit hypocritical too.
It is his hypocrisy which threatens the family but also exposes Allie's weaknesses and for a while I felt sympathetic towards him. When he embarks on building the family a house he has no qualms about using bits and pieces of twentieth century life he has found washed up on the beach - wasn't this the man who left almost every trace of modern life behind when they reached Honduras? Even when his dreams are savagely shattered by the discovery that the natives are Christians thanks to the ministries of some travelling missionaries, I felt disappointed for him. Later, though, it becomes evident that Allie's disappointments are too much for him to handle and he becomes increasingly irrational to the possible detriment of his family and himself. The growing agony that this causes Allie culminates in a shocking and tragic finale.
There are lighter moments though: I loved the episode when Allie constructs an ice-making machine which he plans to take up river and show the natives. Having carefully loaded the mammoth block of ice onto the boat, he finds he has miscalculated the time it will take to get up-river and that it will be a miracle if there is any ice left to exhibit.
I think that "The Mosquito Coast" works because of the family Theroux has created. Allie is a good, if somewhat misguided, man and I do not think it at all unlikely that his wife would agree to his idea and stand by him for so long. The children are typical children, winding each other up, calling each other names and slipping off to build their own secret hideaways.
The novel is dark and has a slightly unreal feel about it but at no time did I ever consider it to be incredible or far-fetched. Although the ending is very dramatic, it is still under-stated, perhaps to ensure that we still feel some degree of symapthy for Aliie.
I found "The Mosquito Coast" to be a thoroughly enjoyable read and my partner, who does not usually favour fiction, enjoyed it too - maybe because it is so credible. I was hooked form start to finish. Could the family survive on their own in the jungle? How would they live? What disasters were going to befall them?
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a "really good read" - it has adventure, suspense, comedy and elements of a psychological thriller all crammed in - and suggest that it could be enjoyed by anyone from the age of twelve/thirteen upwards.
ISBN - 0140060898
Available in paperback priced £6.39 through amazon.co.uk
(Used copies available from 50p.)
Allie Fox becomes very disillusioned with the twentieth century and the so-called civilized world. He doesn't want to be a part of it so he ups sticks and takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle. No hot and cold running water here, no doctor, no schools but he makes the decision regardless. If you imagine a modern day Swiss Family Robinson in an environment of darkness and fear, you will know what's in store here. The writing is so powerful that you almost hold your breath as you wait to see how the family will cope with each event. Allie has a rather twisted kind of genius that keeps his family alive..but just alive. This has to be Paul Theroux's best adventure yet.
Published by Penguin Books