A review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
by Paul Torday
Harcourt 2007, ISBN 978-0-15-101276-3, $24.00, 336 pages

Paul Torday, born in 1946, waited a long time before he wrote this, his first novel, and did a bang-up job of it.

This is an epistolary novel except that the only true letters are those written to the dead fiancé of Harriet, one of the main characters. The story is told through e-mails, newspaper articles, a journal kept by the protagonist, and excerpts from a book of memoirs. As always in this form, the author must make his readers stretch their credulity a bit to allow for statements or descriptions that the characters are not obliged or able to make. Torday hangs closely to the possibilities and is careful not to abuse the reader’s confidence too badly.

Dr Alfred Jones, the protagonist, is a government employee and an expert on the caddis fly. He is not an exciting or imaginative person. He leads a life of sturdy dullness with his wife Mary, a career woman who so far lacks the rudiments of humanity that she abandons her husband to work first in Geneva and then in Düsseldorf.

Through an intermediary, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, Dr Jones receives an invitation to introduce salmon into the Yemen. He dismisses the request as impossible, but pressure by his smarmy superior bends him to accept it. He meets Sheik Muhammad, gains his friendship, and undertakes to supply at least the studies required by the early stages of the project.

The opening is sassy satire with a spray of wicked wit about an uptight and half alive couple like the Joneses, small and oppressive government employees, and a larger lunge at the state of Great Britain as its prime minister leads the country more and more into the turmoil and failures of the Middle East, an area that almost nobody in the book begins to understand. The name of the prime minister is Vent. I can satisfy my own mind that the progression of Blair to Blare to Vent is a sound and amusing derivation.

But the trouble between Alfred and Mary Jones is real. Harriet’s concern over her missing fiancé is equally real. Sheik Muhammad, part zany and part mystic, is convincingly real. It takes very few pages before the reader must wonder what kind of book this after all is. It is not all larks.

Alfred, goaded into the project through the machinations of the prime minister’s communications officer Peter Maxwell, finds that government support collapses when the project becomes politically embarrassing. He loses his job with the government agency but gains a position with the sheik. Together, along with Harriet, they overcome the limitations of introducing salmon into a hostile environment.

The epistolary form prevents the author from overt interventions. Much that is funny, much that is touching, must arise from the material itself. The author can and must shape this, but he cannot leap in with his own comments and views. It’s a hard game to play and Torday does a commendable job of playing it. He has written an easy book that brings up hard questions and keeps the whole at an entertaining boil for his readers. After such an extraordinary debut, one is eager to see what he does next. In any event, this is a book that you will not want to miss.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places