Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A wonderful story of faith in the achievement of the seemingly impossible, political spin and hypocrisy and late-blossoming love. It's witty, biting satire, characters to love and hate and a superb ending. Highly recommended by The Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 252 Date: February 2007
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297851585

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When Dr Alfred Jones, fisheries scientist and Civil Servant, was first asked to consider the idea of introducing salmon fishing to the Yemen he dismissed the idea out of hand. It wasn't until some gentle persuasion and political pressure was applied that he agreed to reconsider. Well, it was that or walk out with his P45 in his hand and as his wife had pointed out on another occasion he wasn't really in a financial position to make such career choices.

Alfred is an unlikely hero but the story of his growing enthusiasm for doing what surely must be impossible had me hooked from the first page. So far, the most exciting thing to have happened in his life is almost having his paper on Effects of Increased Water Acidity on the Caddis Fly Larva published in Trout and Salmon. But this is a beguiling tale which encompasses the peace and serenity of fly-fishing and the sordid deviousness of political spin, the arid atmosphere of a loveless marriage and the beauty of a late-blossoming and unlooked-for love. It's about how expendable people are, be they unloved husbands, fisheries scientists who've inconveniently done only too well what was asked of them, or soldiers in Iraq.

There's acute observation, from the replacement head for an electric toothbrush which was Mary Jones' twentieth wedding anniversary present to her husband, right through to the Prime Minister who felt that he wouldn't be able to catch more than one, or at the very most, two salmon in the twenty minutes which he had available for a photoshoot. The wit is biting despite the fact that what is said is usually quite innocuous.

It's pure satire, exposing the hypocrisy of not just this, but most governments, where deniability is more important than achievement and the photo opportunity is to be prized above all else. The fictional Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Jay Vent M.P. and his director of communications, Peter Maxwell who embraces the idea of salmon fishing in the Yemen as a distraction from other less palatable news, put me in mind of a couple of other people. Sadly, I couldn't help but think of Dr David Kelly as I read about Alfred Jones. The journey from political pawn to political victim is all too speedy.

Alfred can only lose as the project has no long-term viability but the best part of the story for me was seeing the development of his personal independence. He's a character who gets under your skin. His wife got under my skin, but only to irritate as she seemed to appear only to be disobliging and to be the polar opposite of Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the land agent whom Alfred comes to love. The character who has left me with much to think about is the Yemeni Sheikh whose money and enthusiasm are behind the project. He's a man of faith who believes that he can overcome all obstacles to achieve a scientific miracle. For him, faith is a necessity. For some of the other characters in the book, it's an optional extra.

Paul Torday is a keen salmon fisherman and his love of the sport shines through. He has the ability to convey the details of the breeding and rearing of salmon and make it interesting to someone who isn't an enthusiast. Despite the fact that there is a lot of technical detail in the book I was never for a moment tempted to skim: it was interesting and it was relevant. Torday can write: the story is told in emails, memos, extracts from unpublished books and diary entries and they blend together to make a compelling story. For a debut novel, it's really something exceptional.

I know it's only February, but this has to be one of the books of 2007. It has everything I can ask for in a book and one of the most surprising endings that I have ever read. Do read it - I'd be surprised if you don't enjoy it.

My thanks to the publishers, Orion Books, for sending this wonderful story.

For another debut novel which explores the theme of late-developing love and attempts to achieve the seemingly impossible you might like to read Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves. You might also enjoy Wild Wood by Jan Needle and Willie Rushton.

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Magda said:

You know, I had already decided NOT to read this, but your enthusiasm persuaded me otherwise. I will, now. Although I dislike, by default, all stories of late blossoming love.

Sue said:

I think you'll enjoy it, Magda.

John Lloyd said:

Er... I didn't enjoy it. The diary entries and other narrator-less found documents have the worst unnatural descriptive elements, everyone's email features a perfectly remembered conversation, one early chapter is ridiculously harsh on the hero... It's not dreadful, merely ho-hum reasonable. Certainly not worth the building hype.

Sue said:

A lot of my emails feature 'perfectly-remembered conversation' and having been a Civil Servant for 25 years those documents had me howling with laughter - I've read far too many just like them.

Colin Cameron said:

[An] enjoyable quick read and well-observed, but the joke a bit over-extended.