Never believe all you read on a book cover. That’s really all I would like to say about Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but it wouldn’t be much of a review if I stopped there. So, where to start? This was one of my charity shop buys, bought because it had excellent reviews, and because many years ago, when I was a child and we went on holiday to my grandparents in County Donegal, there was a salmon leap in Buncrana, near where they lived.
A quote from the Guardian appears on the back of this edition, proclaiming: “Salmon Fishing is extraordinary indeed, and a triumph.” On the front, the tribute ‘a wonderful novel’ is attributed to Marina Lewycka, author of A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine, which should have acted as some kind of warning, because I didn’t like that either.
Anyway, it turned out to be one of those books where the idea of the story was far more appealing than the novel itself. Here we have Dr Alfred Jones, a dull and diffident fisheries scientist (he made his name with a study on the effects of alkaline solutions on freshwater mussel populations) who is married to a high-flying economist, and is asked to help a wealthy Yemeni sheikh create a salmon river in the highlands of The Yemen.
The government sees an opportunity to improve its standing among the Arab nations, and Fred is dispatched to discover how 10,000 fish can be delivered to an arid land and survive. He embarks on a journey which proves to be as difficult and amazing as the journey undertaken by migrating salmon in their natural environment, changing his life for ever. So far, so good. It is such a barmy notion it sounds as if it would make a delightful book, but as far as I’m concerned it didn’t gel.
None of the characters really came to life – not even the supposedly charismatic and mystical Sheikh Muhammad who masterminds the scheme, driven by a dream of promoting peace, harmony and tolerance by introducing the sport of fly fishing (in a wadi) to his countrymen. There’s Peter Maxwell, the Government spin doctor; Ms Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, acting as land agent and consultant for the sheikh, and Fred’s coldly capable wife Mary.
The book is written in the form of letters, official memos, reports and e-mails, including intercepted messages from al-Qaeda which I thought sounded more like an Adrian Mole joke than something any self-respecting terrorist would have penned. I found the epistolary format rather irritating, and felt there wasn’t enough differentiation in tone and style between the various writers, so the central characters lacked depth.
There’s also a sub-plot about Harriet’s fiancé, Captain Robert Matthews, who is missing in action in Iraq, which may contrast the conflict with the sheikh’s peaceful ambitions, but doesn’t necessarily add a lot to the plot. According to the Reading Group notes in the back (which, quite frankly, should be ignored) the novel also highlights the contrast between life in the east where people still have faith, and life in the west, where they don’t, but I couldn’t say this was done in any meaningful way – it all seemed a bit simplistic, as did the satirical portrayal of the government, which was more than a bit a bit laboured.
Apart from that all I can say is that the action moves between London, Scotland and The Yemen, and there was a lot of information about salmon, and water, which I thought would be interesting, but ended up being rather boring.
Personally I think instead of reading this your time would be better spent enjoying poached salmon. Or smoked salmon. Or gravlax. And that’s not a lightly-made recommendation, because I am vegetarian, and don’t eat meat or fish, but it does show how I felt about this book! Doubtlessly, there are many of you out there who disagree with me, so if you do, please leave a message and tell me why you love it – I’d like to know what I’m missing.