I have to confess, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen only made it onto by to-read list after I heard about the movie based on Paul Torday’s novel, starring Ewan McGregor. I had heard of the book before this, and found the title interesting, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it. Having seen trailers featuring my favourite actor however, the story began to appeal to me, and so I purchased the novel on Kindle.
The title tells you quite a lot about the novel. Alfred Jones is a fisheries scientist who is ordered by his superiors to come up with a proposal for a project dreamed up by a fishing enthusiast sheikh, to introduce salmon to the wadis of the Yemen. Other characters include Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who works for the estate agency who manage the sheikh’s estates; Mary, Alfred’s high-flying wife; and Peter Maxwell, who is director of communications for the prime minister.
The novel is not written in standard narrative form. Much of the story is told through Alfred’s diary entries, but we also learn a lot from various email and memo exchanges, newspaper articles, and interviews carried out with Alfred and Peter after the project. At first I wasn’t sure about this format, as I was concerned it would seem rather “bitty” and disjointed, but it actually worked very well. Alfred’s diary keeps us up to date on the project, while other texts show the bigger picture. Emails between Alfred and his wife show the deterioration of their relationship, with Mary baffled as to why a respected scientist would take on this project.
The story itself could be described as gentle; ultimately it is about fishing. Alfred is a gentle and likeable lead character. Yet despite this, there is a great deal of excitement in the novel. Not excitement of the car chase variety, but a build up of will-it-work excitement. You can’t help but like Alfred, and the project itself is rather mad but fun – and so you become hooked on the story, on wanting to know whether they will successfully introduce salmon to the Yemen.
I’ve mentioned that Alfred is a likeable character. He can be a bit naive and blind at times, but he is a nice chap, if a bit dull. I felt like his wife Mary was one of the villains of the novel, always belittling him and continually failing to understand him. The sheikh was a slightly enigmatic character, massively wealthy and able to bankroll a potential, and very expensive, failure. From that description you might think he is a rich eccentric, but he never comes across as eccentric. He is always a steady and calm presence, and always explains his thoughts and motivations.
The ending was a surprise, although it was obvious that there wasn’t going to be a straightforward ending given some of the texts which make up the novel. I’m still unsure about how I feel; it isn’t a happy ending, but on the other hand, it’s not a sad ending. I have to wonder if the movie ends the same way – after all, Hollywood doesn’t usually go for ambiguous endings, they prefer neatly tied up happily ever afters.
I really, really enjoyed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I’m not sure I realised until at least halfway through just how much I was enjoying reading it. I wrote in a recent review of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch that it was one of the best novels I had read in a while; well, it has been joined by Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It was a different enjoyment though: this one was quieter, more subtle, but just as good.
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