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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 show 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 . Worth a read.