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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Paul Torday

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To purchase Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Title: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Author: Paul Torday
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 328 pages
Availability: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - US
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - UK
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Canada
Lachsfischen im Jemen - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : fun ideas, but doesn't quite pull it off

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 3/3/2007 .
The Guardian A 24/2/2007 Tim Mackintosh-Smith
The Independent . 9/2/2007 John Walsh
New Statesman . 22/1/2007 Nadia Saint
The Telegraph A 4/2/2007 Amanda Craig
The Telegraph A- 4/2/2007 Matt Thorne
TLS . 2/2/2007 Nicholas Clee

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The success of the book lies in the charm of Mr Torday's storyline (...) and his skill at portraying the petty officialdom and manipulativeness of modern government. (...) Bit it is the transformation of the humble Dr Jones from a man bound by convention to one awakened to passion and belief that makes this book both thought-provoking and memorable." - The Economist

  • "It is also about belief in the impossible, and belief itself. And the remarkable thing is that a book about so deeply serious a matter can make you laugh, all the way to a last twist that's as sudden and shocking as a barbed hook. (...) To write a novel lampooning the looking-glass world of Blairite government must have given Torday as much gruesome fun as he gives his readers. But to take the victims of his satire and make them players in a parable about the mystery of belief and its transforming power -- this was in itself an act of faith. Salmon Fishing is extraordinary indeed, and a triumph." - Tim Mackintosh-Smith, The Guardian

  • "This is a book of considerable charm, an echo-chamber of a dozen different voices adroitly ventriloquised. It's also staggeringly old-fashioned. Torday's imagination, though vivid, seems stuck in elderly movies. (...) But just when you're upbraiding Torday for his valetudinarian decency, he pulls off an ending both apocalyptic and wholly unexpected. His book turns out to be a moral tale about the importance of believing in something, and the comparative unimportance of everything else. Fishermen will love it. Non-fishing readers will find it enjoyable, faintly moth-eaten and oddly thought-provoking." - John Walsh, The Independent

  • "It is light, but succeeds in an ambitious project: making a book about fishing readable, even touching. Fish may not be your bag, but it is the capacity for commitment and belief that makes for good reading." - Nadia Saint, New Statesman

  • "(A) novel that captivates the grumpiest reader within moments. What begins as hare-brained becomes increasingly plausible, in all its details. Written by someone who has spent most of his life working in industry, it describes the maddening world of petty officialdom sent into riffs of lunacy by political will; if you imagine The Office crossed with Yes, Minister, you may get some inkling of how very funny it is. (...) (T)he intelligence, inventiveness and humanity of this novel in comparison to the usual run of literary fiction is as wild salmon to the farmed." - Amanda Craig, The Telegraph

  • "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is an entertaining and successful debut, but beneath the light humour are deeper currents that suggest Torday's next book will be more substantial. His skill with character is hindered slightly by his overly schematic structure, and the novel would have benefited from a tighter edit as several sections feel superfluous to the main action. But its considerable charm more than compensates for these small flaws, and it is warmly recommended to anyone searching for feelgood comedy with surprising bite." - Matt Thorne, The Telegraph

  • "But the improbability is not as damaging to the novel as Torday's narrative technique is. (...) Torday grasps the workings of bureaucracies better than he does those of the media. (...) Torday's novel is too staid." - Nicholas Clee, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has an amusing yet ultimately too far-fetched premise. Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama is a wealthy Yemeni who owns an estate in Scotland and has decided what Yemen really needs is some local salmon fishing. The British government -- led by a Blair-like PM, James "Jay" Vent -- sees this (most of the time) as a tremendous opportunity. Things are still going badly in the Middle East, and this sort of project could be just the thing to impress the British public (bringing something very British to the Middle East, and doing so by using British expertise and know-how) as well as win friends in that area of the world:

Yemeni tribesmen waiting for the evening rise by the side of a wadi with fishing rods in their hands. Isn't that an image we'd rather have in our mind's eye than a tank at a crossroads somewhere in Fallujah ? Salmon smokeries on the edge of the wadis. The introduction of a gentle, tolerant sport that unites us and our Arab brethren in a new and deep way. A path away from confrontation.
       The novel is presented in the form of documentary records: correspondence, e-mail exchanges, diary entries, formal inquiry interviews, transcripts of question-hour at the House of Commons, passages from an unpublished memoir, even a TV script. The central figure is Dr.Alfred (Fred) Jones, who works at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. He has the proper qualifications to study the feasibility of the undertaking, but he thinks it's too silly to even consider; only when political pressure is put on him does he give in -- eventually devoting himself entirely to it.
       Jones is married but childless. His wife is the very calculating Mary (her specialty is financial risk analysis). They are "both humanists, professionals and scientists", but it's not exactly the warmest of unions. Indeed, there's obviously quite a bit missing, and Mary's job takes her away from Fred for much of the novel. Her career is very important to her -- but she also expects quite a bit from Fred (who doesn't earn as much as she does).
       Jones winds up working mainly for Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who is handling the running of the project for the Sheikh. She is engaged, but her fiancé has been sent to fight in Iraq, and his fate there weighs heavily on her.
       The Sheikh himself is an appealing philosophical sort of figure, with enough money to make the best of his crazy concept. He has faith (in all senses of the word) and his calm and belief have a positive effect on Jones; despite the disruption the project causes to both his professional and domestic life, Jones clearly grows during this period.
       The project is variously embraced and disowned by the British government, with the PM's flunkey, director of communications Peter Maxwell, the main man involved. He is a caricature, though too many of even the absurdest exchanges don't sound that different from what has gone on at 10 Downing Street in recent years ..... Meanwhile, al Qaeda is opposed to the project ("it is not Islamic in its nature") and order a hit on the Sheikh.
       Torday has a lot going on, and it's difficult to juggle. The relationship issues between Fred and his wife (who comes off as a very silly cow indeed), as well as Harriet and her fiancé (who apparently winds up on a covert mission in Iran, making for yet another complication) in particular aren't well integrated into the story. They're meant to show the human sides of the characters -- and, of course, Fred and Harriet begin to eye each other -- but there's not enough to make it very convincing.
       The bureaucratic and political satire on offer is, for the most part, decent fun. Certainly, the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence and the government come of looking realistically silly. When Torday gets too specific about the political situation of the day -- for example, when he posits an energy crisis leading to gas supplies in the UK "turned off for most of December and January" -- the book loses almost any link to reality -- but he also doesn't go all out, once down that road, and take it to all extremes.
       Al Qaeda isn't thrown in very convincingly, either, and it's hard to believe that a figure as ridiculous as Maxwell could last so long as a PM-aide. (And things such as his TV-show idea are just another of too many vaguely amusing but completely unnecessary asides.)
       The Sheikh's vision is compelling because he truly believes in it -- and gets Fred to believe in it (at least to the extent that something -- and possibly something glorious -- can be accomplished), too. But ultimately the idea of salmon fishing in the Yemen is too far-fetched, and that's what sinks the book as a whole. The book progresses towards the unveiling of the project, the releasing of the salmon -- with no one knowing what will happen then. Torday's only recourse is to go for the grandest of finales, and that's what he does. The outcome is predictable, a climax that brings things to a conclusion but -- except for regarding Fred, who has gained from the experience, and is (modestly) happier for it -- a far from satisfactory one. Overkill, indeed.
       Just as Torday uses so many different forms in presenting the story -- from diary entries to a TV script -- so too he seems uncertain of what he means the book to be. Parts are outrageous (even ridiculous) satire, parts more moving stories of personal struggles. Geo-politics and bureaucracy are also tied in -- more and less successfully. As a whole, Torday's effort reads like the Sheikh's first experience shooting grouse: he thought he was a fine marksman, but found: "they flew so fast that I could not hit them for a long time". Torday too hits quite a few of his marks along the way, but not nearly enough to look like he really knows what he's doing.
       Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is modestly enjoyable, with a few decently drawn characters (Fred, the Sheikh, the gillie, Colin McPherson), but far too much of it falls short of what could be done with the material. Torday tries too much, and winds up with too little.

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • A Novella and Short Stories from Yemen by Mohammad Abdul-Wali, They Die Strangers
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Paul Torday was born in 1946.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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