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I first came across this book when we decided to read it for our book club and I enjoyed it. I found it quite an easy book to read, not too taxing, a bit of a break from the norm and quite a funny book too.
I think the story is really quite a funny one as the idea of having Salmon fishing in the Yemen is quite a preposturous one. That's definitely the way Dr Jones felt in this book and I loved the way he felt about it and how he expressed himself when it came to this idea. As time went on I really enjoyed the way his character grew. To me he has such a dry, ironic sense of humour and that really came across well in the book.
From the back of the book we are given this synopsis, "When he is asked to become involved in a project to create a salmon river in the highlands of the Yemen, fisheries scientist Dr Alfred Jones rejects the idea as absurd. But the proposal catches the eye of several senior British politicians. And so Fred finds himself forced to set aside his research and instead figure out how to fly ten thousand salmon to a desert country - and persuade them to swim there...
As he embarks on an extraordinary journey of faith, the diffident Dr Jones will discover a sense of belief, and a capacity for love, that surprises himself, and all who know him."
A lot of the book is written in e-mail and letter form and I the beginning of the book these were quite short exchange by the various parties involved in setting up the salmon fishing. I thought it may begin to get a bit tedious and a bit hard to read and to be honest I did flick through the bits with the e-mail addresses and building addresses etc but as the book goes on these become less frequent and in the end you don't really notice it.
At the back of the book you are given a glossary of some fishing terms as well as some Yemen terms which makes some of the phrase used a bit easier to understand. There is also a little section for reading group notes and this is what we focused on for our book club and I found this a really nice inclusion.
The book was voted Winner of the 2007 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.
I have it in the paper back version and it is published by Orion books with an ISBN 978-0-7538-2178-7. It cost £7.99.
I have to confess, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen only made it onto by to-read list after I heard about the movie based on Paul Torday's novel, starring Ewan McGregor. I had heard of the book before this, and found the title interesting, but I hadn't paid much attention to it. Having seen trailers featuring my favourite actor however, the story began to appeal to me, and so I purchased the novel on Kindle.
The title tells you quite a lot about the novel. Alfred Jones is a fisheries scientist who is ordered by his superiors to come up with a proposal for a project dreamed up by a fishing enthusiast sheikh, to introduce salmon to the wadis of the Yemen. Other characters include Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who works for the estate agency who manage the sheikh's estates; Mary, Alfred's high-flying wife; and Peter Maxwell, who is director of communications for the prime minister.
The novel is not written in standard narrative form. Much of the story is told through Alfred's diary entries, but we also learn a lot from various email and memo exchanges, newspaper articles, and interviews carried out with Alfred and Peter after the project. At first I wasn't sure about this format, as I was concerned it would seem rather "bitty" and disjointed, but it actually worked very well. Alfred's diary keeps us up to date on the project, while other texts show the bigger picture. Emails between Alfred and his wife show the deterioration of their relationship, with Mary baffled as to why a respected scientist would take on this project.
The story itself could be described as gentle; ultimately it is about fishing. Alfred is a gentle and likeable lead character. Yet despite this, there is a great deal of excitement in the novel. Not excitement of the car chase variety, but a build up of will-it-work excitement. You can't help but like Alfred, and the project itself is rather mad but fun - and so you become hooked on the story, on wanting to know whether they will successfully introduce salmon to the Yemen.
I've mentioned that Alfred is a likeable character. He can be a bit naive and blind at times, but he is a nice chap, if a bit dull. I felt like his wife Mary was one of the villains of the novel, always belittling him and continually failing to understand him. The sheikh was a slightly enigmatic character, massively wealthy and able to bankroll a potential, and very expensive, failure. From that description you might think he is a rich eccentric, but he never comes across as eccentric. He is always a steady and calm presence, and always explains his thoughts and motivations.
The ending was a surprise, although it was obvious that there wasn't going to be a straightforward ending given some of the texts which make up the novel. I'm still unsure about how I feel; it isn't a happy ending, but on the other hand, it's not a sad ending. I have to wonder if the movie ends the same way - after all, Hollywood doesn't usually go for ambiguous endings, they prefer neatly tied up happily ever afters.
I really, really enjoyed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I'm not sure I realised until at least halfway through just how much I was enjoying reading it. I wrote in a recent review of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch that it was one of the best novels I had read in a while; well, it has been joined by Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It was a different enjoyment though: this one was quieter, more subtle, but just as good.
On a recent train journey I made a bit of an impulse buy and discarded the Kindle for a change! My purchase was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - I wanted to see the film (basically because I like the lead cast members!) but being a bit of a purist I decided I should read the book before I watch the film.
I hadn't heard much about the book or the movie when I picked it up, and didn't even really read the blurb before diving into the book. I'm actually glad I didn't, because it meant that I had no preconceived ideas about the book, and went in with a totally blank opinion of the story - although I did presume it would have something to do with salmon!
So the basic premise of the novel, for those of you who would like to know, is as follows. Dr Alfred Jones is a fisheries scientist that until this point had quietly worked away at and lived his life. He is married to Mary and lives in London, and seems to enjoy his life. Until one day he is handed an unusual project - so unusual that the UK government becomes involved, and 'suggests' that he carries it out. This project - work out a way to transport thousands of salmon to the Yemen and once they get there, work out a way for them to survive in the unforgiving climate. Along for the ride is the glamorous Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, representative of the mysterious Sheikh Muhammad who set the whole Yemen project in motion. Will the seemingly impossible project work? And will Fred be the one to achieve it? Or will it upset the balance, not just in his home, but in the wider world?
Now I'm going to be honest, it doesn't sound massively engaging - how to transport fish from Scotland to Yemen. However, I read the majority of the book in a 2 and a half hour train journey because I just couldn't put it down. There seemed to be something drawing me into the book; I can't quite describe how, but the way it was written just made me keep reading. There was some intrigue and fascination with what would happen next. I wouldn't say it was action packed, but there was enough in there to keep you interested. And to be honest I got quite invested in whether the salmon would make it to the Yemen or not - along with a couple of other what if's, which I won't detail here as to not spoil the whole plot!
I think that one thing I could say about this book is that, although it kept me reading and was very well written to be able to do that with such a gentle story, the ending was very disappointing. There was a lot of build up to it, and then suddenly it was all over. It also felt like there were more than a few loose ends that need tying up. Now I know that in everyday life it's not always possible to tie up loose ends, but I do like my books to leave me satisfied! I felt quite disappointed, as I had gotten so invested with the characters and the story and it was just a let-down ending. The standard was totally different to the rest of the book, and it just felt a little rushed, as though the writer only had a certain word count or time limit to meet.
The ending is such a shame compared to the rest of the book. The quality of writing was such that kept the reader interested, and although it was a seemingly gentle story, there were a couple of mysterious twists and sections that really kept you guessing. One quirk I liked about the book is that there were sections where emails were passed backwards and forwards. This is quite a nice way to move the story along, and an interesting narrative; it gives you an understanding of what is going on in the personal lives of some of the characters, or within the minds of the government (who seem to change their mind every 5 minutes in the book!) without having to go into too much detail or too off-course from the main story. Other narrative techniques were 'extracts' from an autobiography, and 'transcriptions' from interviews - the reason for these interviews becomes clear at the end of the book. To be honest, the arrival of mysterious interviews is was really pushed me to finish the book - I had found myself questioning whether much was going to happen, and suddenly an email & interview section presents itself and I plough through the rest of the book!
Fred (or Alfred if we are being proper) is the main character of the book, and there are three or four 'supporting acts'. This means that the book isn't very cluttered and allows the reader to really get involved with the characters - this is usually a must in every book, but because of the story and the events in the story, I feel it is almost vital to get as close as possible to the characters and to be really invested in them to enjoy the full impact of the story. Fred seems a bit of an awkward character in the initial email section of the book, but after the first couple of pages of the first chapter I find myself rooting for him and hoping everything works out for him in the end. Always a good start when you are very definitely on the side of the hero of the book!
I think overall I really liked this book. I won't go as far to say that I loved the book as that wouldn't be true. I think I loved the book up until the final couple of sections, at which point I became disappointed in the book. That is the tragedy of the book - you are able to delve into the story and the characters, and enjoy the plots twists and turns and then suddenly it's over and you feel you have been cheated out of the fantastic ending you were promised! But, the positives of the book are not to be overlooked. It is very well written, and makes a plot that initially seems dry very interesting and compelling to read. I love the use of emails, diary extracts and, later on, the interview transcripts. I would recommend it to anyone who would like a nice gentle read, but with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing. My next step will be to see the film and see if that decides to tie up loose ends!
This has to rate as one of my top ten novels of all time. The delicious combination of absurd politics and the resulting black humouris an absolute joy, condidering this is Paul Tordays first work. He is a masterfull writer making the everyday mundanities seem spectacular.
The leading character a disenchanted fisheries scientist, Dr Alfred Jones, embarks upon the seemingly immpossible task of creating a salmon river in the dusty drought ridden highlands of the Yemen. The ensuing political turnarounds of a fickle government parody todays absurd party legislation.
He then has to work out how to fly ten thousand salmon to the desert and pursuade them to return here to spawn. His descriptive talent is at its best in the highlands of scotland, where he tries to impress upon officials from both countrys, the absolute magic of Salmon fishing.
A gentle and feelgood comedy with some of the best political satire outside of "Yes Minister", i have read.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of those slightly bizarre, niche books that somehow found a mass market. Testament to the fact that it was once the "must-buy book of the week" (and doubtless a staple of book clubs) is the fact that it is now a stalwart of charity shops and second hand book stores,
The rather quirky plot tells the tale of Dr Alfred Jones, a government scientist who is engaged by a rich Middle Eastern Sheikh to oversee a project which will introduce Salmon to the Yemen in order to establish fly fishing as a past time in the region. Initially dismissing the proposal as impossible, Jones' scientific curiosity is nevertheless piqued and, urged on by the inspirational figure of The Sheikh, he takes on a project which will transform his life forever.
If the plot of the book is slightly quirky, so is the method of drawing out the narrative. There is no one single account told from the perspective of one individual character, which is the norm with most fiction. Instead, events are pieced together from a number of different sources and told with the benefit of hindsight - i.e. the story contained within is already in the past and their outcome known. Some sections, for example, take the form of extracts Dr Jones' personal diary, others from interviews with some of the witnesses to the events; yet others from House of Commons official accounts.
This is an incredibly clever narrative technique. Right from the off we know that something major must have occurred, but at this stage we are unsure what. As the accounts pile up, we slowly start to piece together the facts and work out the order and outcome of events. Even when you think you know where the narrative is heading, it still manages to spring the odd surprise and doesn't have the predictable ending you might expect.
Using different "sources" to piece events together is a tricky one to pull off effectively. Salmon Fishing manages it easily. All the accounts all have a different "voice" (the language used in the official parliamentary reports is very different from that of Dr Jones in his own personal diary) and feel like they were written by very different people for very different purposes. Not only that, but individual "voices" change over the course of the book, too. At the start Dr Jones is clearly dissatisfied with life and this is reflected in both the tone and content of his words. As he becomes excited and invigorated by the project, the entries in his diary reflect this.
The book also successfully raises the question of how you can ever arrive at a "true" record of events, since there is often no consensus and different people will view the same events from different angles. There are several times when the author writes different accounts of the same events from the perspective of eyewitnesses, yet they vary in some crucial details, suggesting that personal bias can influence accounts significantly.
Used badly, tricks like this can leave a book feeling fragmented and disjointed, yet Salmon Fishing uses it extremely effectively. The different "voice" of each account provides variety, breaking up the text into manageable chunks in a way that proves to be far more effective in engaging the interest and emotion of the reader than a more straightforward narrative.
This unusual but effective approach is complemented by some superb characterisation. The main character - Dr Alfred Jones - is an incredibly sympathetic figure who slowly realises that he leads a rather futile, empty existence. Trapped in a loveless marriage and showing a distinct lack of ambition, his life is going nowhere. He cuts such a deeply tragic figure that the reader cannot help but feel deeply sorry for him and provokes a genuinely emotional reaction. Jones undergoes a real emotional rollercoaster of a ride, enduring the same highs and lows of life that we all experience. His story and character arc are very well judged and superbly written, so that the reader undergoes the same emotions vicariously and will identify with elements of his dilemma.
Nor is this level of attention merely lavished on a single, central character; it's true of the other major characters. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, Jones' partner in the venture undergoes the same highs and lows as Alfred for very different reasons. The Sheikh who is funding the entire project comes across as a genuinely inspirational character, free of the usual Middle Eastern stereotypes that most books and films peddle. Indeed, the convincing characters, combined with the "documentary evidence" approach makes the book seem so real that it seems almost impossible to accept that these are not actually living, breathing beings who actually went through these amazing events.
On the face of it, Salmon Fishing is a rather superficial tale about a spurious scientific project. Scratch deeper and there are some much darker themes lurking. The book actually works on many different levels, all of which are enjoyable. It is by turns a political satire, a musing on the nature of faith and belief; a questioning of the skewed priorities of modern society with its work-life (im)balance and focus on material wealth and possessions and an examination of East-West relations in the wake of September 11. That Salmon Fishing works on so many levels is an incredible achievement and gives the book far greater weight and depth than might be apparent at first glance.
It is particularly scathing of the political system which values photo opportunities over policies and spin over substance (where have we heard that before?!) and the characters of Prime Minister Jay Vent and Peter Maxwell are thinly veiled portrayals of Blair and Mandelson, respectively. For as long as politicians continue to treat the electorate as though they are simple Salmon Fishing will remain an excellent satirical poke in the eye for self-important politicians.
It's not a tub-thumping book, though. It can simply be read as a whimsical tale of a mad plan to introduce salmon into a desert country. It doesn't force moral and political issues down your throat if you want to ignore the darker underlying themes.
I'm almost at a loss to think of bad things to say about this book, so maybe I won't bother. Sometimes a book just works; it's fun to read, interesting and can be read on lots of different levels, either as a simple story of human triumph against the odds or as a novel containing much deeper themes. Providing you can get the hang of the "multiple sources narrative", you should find this a quirky, but enjoyable read.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Phoenix, new edition, 2007
© Copyright SWSt 2012
This book came well recommended not only from reviews in the media but also from many friends who had enjoyed this political satire with a darker comic streak.
Dr Alfred Jones, a middle aged rather boring fisheries scientist, is living out an ordinary life immersed in his work. At home his wife the career minded Mary rules the roost, he is happy enough to go along with what she has to say. However Alfred's life changes when he is placed in charge of a project to introduce salmon fishing in the dry mountainous regions of Yemen in the Middle East. At first Alfred naturally thinks the project is madness, Salmon are not naturally found in those climates and the rivers in Yemen are seasonal so they could not sustain such fishing stock, but after meeting the enigmatic Sheik Muhammad who is funding the project and his English assistant the attractive Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, Alfred begins to see that despite the obstacles with enough ingenuity, money and faith the project could have a chance of succeeding. Unfortunately for Alfred political expediency and other darker forces are set to irrevocably affect his ambitions. Before long he has to deal with on one side the political machinations of the Prime Minister Jay Vent and his spin doctor- in-chief Peter Maxwell and on the other the murderous intent of al-Qaeda.
The story is told in the form of diary entries, magazine articles, e-mails and official interviews rather surprisingly mimicking the style of some traditional Victorian novels. This way of telling the story has the advantage of seeing events from different perspectives as each character put forward their own personal points of view. The down side is that we never have single narrative voice, someone we come to trust sympathise with. In addition the narrative tends to become slightly disjointed which affected the flow of the story.
The characters although colourful are rather clichéd and superficial. The portrayal of the prime minister and the chief spin doctor are no more that 'spitting image' type caricatures. They are also now somewhat dated in that they are obviously referencing the New Labour spin obsessed administration of Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, although some might argue that the Cameron/Clegg 'love-in' coalition is little better. The character of Maxwell in particular was in my mind not that well conceived. This man is supposed to be the real power of government hidden in the shadows, secretly pulling the prime minister's strings and yet he is portrayed as an opportunistic bumbling idiot, which simply doesn't ring true for someone that possesses that level of Machiavellian influence.
The author Paul Torday has set himself a hard task, he is trying to blend political satire with an almost mystical tale of one man's dream of bettering humanity and another man's redemption on discovering that there is much more to life than he has ever imagined. We must forgive Torday his ambition in fact we might well applaud it this being his debut novel but for me he hasn't totally succeeded in marrying the disparate themes. At best this can be described as gentle satire and maybe that's my problem with it, I like my satire a little more brutal.
I also had a problem with the structure of the story, yes the episodic nature of the narrative is an interesting literary device and it does allow the story to be given form differing perspectives but such a means of telling the story must be deftly handled if it is not to flounder and unfortunately in some parts this novel did just that. There seem to be interminable sections where Jay Vent and Peter Maxwell are being interviewed, which I found tedious and of little benefit to progressing the story. The parts I thought worked best where those involving Alfred Jones by far the most sympathetic if at time irritatingly naive character. I especially enjoyed the exchanges with his wife Mary and the messianic Sheik Muhammad. To be fair there were some memorable one liners for example when Alfred talks about religion he says that he has "moved on from religion', going to Tesco on a Sunday instead of church.
The descriptions of the process of fly fishing, the spiritual nature of the contest between man and fish were very well illustrated and it seems Torday has a genuine love for the sport. I wasn't surprised to find that he is a keen salmon fisherman himself. The idea that such an activity might be the answer to all of the Middle-East's woes by instilling a sense of patience and tolerance into people although far-fetched did seem to be plausible at least at a spiritual level in the context of the story.
The book's most successful aspect is the way Torday exposes the madness of governmental bureaucracy and how it can stifle good ideas at the same as giving impetus to bad ones and in this respect the examples given in the book pale into insignificancy compared to the real life examples we can all think of. As usual in this genre real life is usually far stranger than fiction. Torday doesn't limit himself to commenting on the political classes though; he has something to say about religion, consumerism and the class system.
At its heart Torday's book is essentially a tale of someone chasing a dream and having the passion and conviction to turn it into a reality against what seem as overwhelming odds. A tale of hope and without giving anything away about the ending the conclusion of the story is still one that leaves you believing that hope and faith need never be in vain if you truly believe.
This debut novel will be of interest for those of you who fondly remember TV shows like 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister' but don't expect anything as sharp or hard edged as some more moderns political satires like 'The Thick Of It'.
'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' by Paul Torday (paperback 352 pages) can be bought from Amazon for £4.87 and free delivery in the UK at the time of writing this review.
Worth a read.
When "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" was picked for my book group, I assumed it was one of those funny titles which didn't really have anything to do with the story (like A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian). But this actually is a novel about salmon fishing in the Yemen! The story is mostly told from the point of view of Dr Alfred Jones, a UK Fisheries scientist who works for Defra. He is (unwillingly at first) dragged into a plan to introduce salmon into the wadis of the Yemen. At first the dull and safe Alfred writes the whole idea off as ridiculous, but his interest is soon piqued by the Sheikh who will be funding it, and Harriet who manages the Sheikh's estates. Will it ever be possible for salmon to survive in the desert? And how will Alfred's life and values change in his relationships Harriet and Sheikh Muhammed?
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is written using emails, diary extracts, letters etc. I was really disappointed when I realised this but then I actually enjoyed it as the book went on. It allows the characters each to speak in their own voice. Alfred's diary extracts are particularly good, as we see him evolve through the book. The extracts at the beginning are sweet and heartbreaking in their naivety, especially as he contemplates his stale marriage and militant wife. As Alfred gets more involved in the project, his writing style changes and becomes more descriptive and self-reflective, particularly after discussions with the Sheikh about faith. Faith is a major theme in the book which the author returns to often. However, as well as being a touching novel about love, faith, friendship and enterprise, this is also a political satire. I imagine Paul Torday, the author, is thinking of the Tony Blair-Alastair Campbell years when he writes about a politician and spin-doctor taking up the salmon project as a media opportunity with interesting consequences. This angle is amusing, though a little far-fetched at times!
Don't worry if you don't know anything about salmon fishing or Arab culture; I didn't! The book has a glossary of terms which is useful, but also explains what you need to know throughout the story.
Overall, I found this book light-hearted but also touching, It's funny but it deals with some serious questions. Apart from the politicians, I found all the characters well developed and I wanted to know how things turned out for them.
This could be an easy beach read, or something more if you want to consider the themes of faith and hope.
I bought this book because of the great reviews it had had, and because i thought it was a catchy title! But - I have to say its the worst book i've ever read (and I've read a lot of books!) The basic plot is that the main character is a scientist to do with salmon, and a rich sheik wants to devise a plan to allow scottish salmon to live in the Yemen, so that people can fish for them. The story isnt told as a story as such, its pieced together from excerts of the main characters diary,emails between the characters, news paper reports etc. I found this very hard to follow! the story jumped around a lot, with one bit being about them still trying to figure out ways to get the salmon there and the next bit being an interview with a character after this whole thing has happened. I was left feeling confused, not knowing at all what was going on!!
Disappointed with it as it had so many good reviews.
Dr Alfred Jones, a hen-pecked civil servant working for the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence finds his values compromised when he is instructed by his boss to collaborate with a property management company charged with fulfilling the dreams of a rich Yemeni Sheikh who dreams of seeing his passion of salmon fishing made possible in his homeland. At first Doctor Jones tries to get out of the job after all there are good scientific reasons why salmon don't live in the Middle East - but when the Prime Minister's Director of Communications gets wind of the story he sees its potential as a source of good news rather than the votes-losing military fatalities that usually dominate the news from that region. Faced with a choice of resigning or taking on the project, Dr Jones reluctantly sets to work.
Having agreed to work on the project, Dr Jones accompanies Harriet Chetwode-Talbot to Glen Tulloch, the Sheikh's Scottish estate, and quickly falls under the spell of the eloquent Arab. Before long Dr Jones finds himself devoting long hours to making the sheikh's dreams become reality but not without incurring the ridicule of his career-minded and cold-hearted wife and seeing the project cause consternation in the Commons. And it's not only in the Commons that there is opposition to the scheme as every good Muslim knows, salmon fishing is not in accordance with Islam.....
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is as ludicrous a story as its title suggests but it is the wittiest, most satirical and funniest novel I have read for some time. It is quintessentially British from the stereotyped (but credible) characters to the turn of events and the use of the government as an easy target; it is pantomime in prose.
When I realised that the story is told by means of extracts from Dr Jones, diary, e-mails between characters, newspaper reports, extracts from Hansard (the written account of Parliamentary business) and transcripts of after-the-event interviews, my heart sank a little. I am, I suppose, quite old-fashioned and prefer to read a novel written in conventional prose. However, the e-mail sections are quite short and there are much longer sections of pure prose such as reports and transcripts of interviews.
I really liked the characters. From the outset I adored Dr Jones, a train-spotter of a man whose life is so dull that he has devised a method of evaluating underwear based on the length of time it takes to require replacing. His wife, the austere Mary, is more interested in her own career than she is in her marriage and makes sure Alfred doesn't get any fanciful ideas Mary says expensive perfumes are a form of feminine exploitation and no substitute for the frequent application of soap and water. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot is the jolly hockey sticks, practical and personable young partner of Fitzharris and Price Land Agents who is given the job of managing the salmon fishing in the Yemen project; for the benefit of British readers she reminded me of Channel Four's property expert Kirsty Allsop, well-spoken with an optimistic can-do attitude.
The we come to the Sheikh, or to use his full title His Excellency Sheikh Muhammed ibn Zaidi bani Tihama; a devout Muslim and confirmed Anglophile well, one that enjoys a glass of Scotch and a spot of salmon fishing. The erudite and cultured Sheikh has an ability to charm even the birds from the trees.
Even if the characters are a little clich餬 the scene-setting is brilliant. From the Scottish estate - through tall sash windows I could see heathery moors running up into the mountains - to the hot and dusty landscapes of the Yemen towering cliffs that are ochre in the sunlight and purple in the shade, wadis slashed as if with a giant knife cutting thousands of feet between sheer rock walls - the descriptions were rich and sumptuous and totally unexpected in a book of this kind. Best, and most evocative of all, was Dr Jones account of his childhood fishing trips with his father that was touching without being over-sentimental. Even angling a sport that has never held any interest for me is wonderfully described; and not only does the book entertain but it manages to be really informative without interrupting the flow of the story.
The central story of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is inspired; not only is it a very funny idea but one that allows Paul Torday to poke lots of fun at the government, its spin doctors and how political parties seek votes. It also enables a few choice comments about foreign policy and there is no disguising the fact that the Prime Minister, Jay Vent is based on Tony Blair.
I can only award Salmon Fishing in the Yemen five stars there is no reason to award less. This novel is funny, clever and thought-provoking. I look forward to reading more from this fine author who has caught my imagination as much as the Sheikh inspired Dr Jones!
I have reviewed the soft cover version by
Weidenfeld and Nicholson
RRP - £7.99
I discovered the book in the English corner of a German bookshop, the bright blue cover with the silvery fish caught my eye (they glow in semi-darkness!), the bizarre title appealed to me and the blurb A wonderful novel convinced me that I should buy it, not because thats a highly original remark but because it is from Marina Lewycka, author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a novel I appreciate. Not living in GB I didnt know that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen had already become a top seller there and the Hardcover edition had moved to No 117 on the sales rank of Amazon.co.uk. A virtual friend has abstained from reading it up to now, however, suspecting it to be too gimmicky for her liking. Lets have a look whether her suspicion is justified.
A stinking rich Yemeni sheikh and dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile owns an estate in Scotland with a river running through, where he pursues his hobby of salmon fishing whenever he is in the country. He dreams of introducing salmon fishing to the Yemen as a means of uniting his countrymen regardless of their tribal and class background, - fishermen standing on the bank of a river dont argue with each other, theyre quiet and peaceful and united by a common goal - besides, he believes that Allah wants him to do this. For the sheikh the seemingly miraculous migration of the salmon from the ocean to the stream where it was born is an allegory for the human journey towards God.
He asks the office dealing with his British affairs to find an expert who can help him realise his vision, the woman in charge, Ms Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, is referred to Dr. Alfred Jones, a civil servant at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. Not surprisingly, the latter finds the scheme ludicrous, so much so that he even doesnt reply himself but makes his assistant send an e-mail culminating in the word unfeasible. Fish in the desert? No way!
Ms Harriet is ambitious and doesnt take no for an answer, besides, she doesnt see the sheikh merely as a client, she likes the man, so she pulls a string, she rings an old friend in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and tells him about the project with all this bad news coming out of the rest of the Middle East, isnt this a potential good news story? The targeted audience jump at the idea, Peter Maxwell, spinner-in-chief, director of communications to the PM, Jay Vent (?!), spots a perfect photo opportunity: the PM, rod in hand, in a Yemeni wadi, guaranteed to divert public attention from the less constructive news items - read mayhem and carnage - elsewhere in the region. Here we have pure political satire and especially British readers will enjoy the many allusions.
Very soon the story gathers momentum, Dr. Alfred Jones is made to work on the project with the help of very unsubtle threats. Where does this mad idea lead to? The plot is original and I found myself engrossed in the story which is full of unprecedented events and has an unpredictable ending.
The main characters, the goodies Dr. Alfred Jones, Ms Harriet Chetwode-Talbot and His Excellency Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama and the baddy Peter Maxwell are well drawn, the shy boffin who understands the mating habits of freshwater mussels but not why his marriage to Mary, a high-flyer in international banking, has become stale (they have been married for over twenty years, for their last wedding anniversary Alfred gave Mary an Economist subscription and she gave him a replacement part for his electric toothbrush), approaching middle-age he feels an increasing sense of intellectual and emotional restlessness. Ms Harriet, the posh career woman whose middle name is Efficiency but who suffers horribly when her fiancé is sent on a military mission to Iraq; the Sheikh, a wise man, whose maxim is, Without faith, there is no hope. Without faith, there is no love. This can be seen as the core message of the novel: the importance of believing in something and the comparative unimportance of everything else.
Will Alfred and Harriet become an item now that theyre thrown together in this mad enterprise? Ive enjoyed very much how Paul Torday treats the relationship, refreshing in an age in which Sex Sells is the motto for so many authors. He may be considered old-fashioned in this respect, the way he tells the story is certainly up-to-date, though. It isnt told continuously from beginning to end but in letters, e-mails, interviews, articles in newspapers ranging from Trout & Stream to The Times, excerpts from the Hansard report and exchanges between al-Qaida operatives, here Torday shows that he's a brill stylist. Normally Im not a great fan of experimental writing but I liked reading this novel, it doesnt only consist of snippets, that would really make me nervous, there are long prose passages from Alfreds diary and Harriets letters to her fiancé which form the body of the text so-to-speak.
Here we get atmospheric descriptions of the Scottish highlands with lairds and castles, mists and glens and also of the beauty of the Yemeni landscape, the hospitality of the Sheikh, the smell and taste of spicy Arabic food; Paul Torday has often visited the Middle East and according to an arabist has got nearly everything right. If that isnt a compliment!
Theres something else Id like to mention: the main topic of the novel is salmon fishing, what do *you* know about it? I dont know anything about fishing at all to say nothing about salmon, but although many details are given, the novel doesnt deteriorate into a lecture - something Ive noticed about Ian McEwans novels, he researches too much and this shows too much. I must confess that I havent understood all the technical fishing terms but Ive learnt that the female salmon is called hen and the male one cock, whod have thunk it?
Ive skimmed through some reviews and noticed only positive ones for this debut novel, I cant but join in the hymns of praise.
Dear virtual friend, the book is not too gimmicky and I think you'd enjoy it!
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Paperback 10.99 GBP