Book Group Report – the spirit of Sir Humphrey lives on …

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

All those who made it to our book group last week, enjoyed this book.  There were different degrees of love ranging from a good read to fantastic, but no-one really had a bad word to say about it.  Shame, as one of our cadre who couldn’t make it that evening, didn’t get on with it at all and that would have made for more exciting banter. I was in the camp who loved it.

This is the story of Alfred (Fred) Jones, a middle-aged scientist working for the government fisheries agency, and his experiences in a project to bring – yes – salmon fishing to the Yemen.  An idealist Shiekh wants to do the best kind of fishing there is in the mountain wadis of his home country. He has the money to make it happen, the UK government is initially happy to supply expertise to see if the project is feasible.  Fred is assigned, thinks the whole idea is absurd, and ends up being sacked, whereupon he gets employed by the Sheikh’s agents and begins to see the light – mainly thanks to his new colleague, the lovely Harriet Chetwode-Talbot.  Meanwhile, Fred’s home life is not good.  His wife Mary works for an international bank, and is going places – without Fred, but he’s seemingly stuck in this sterile marriage…

The rest of the evening was a bit of a frost, but when we went to bed, I think Mary must have felt a little guilty about the way she had changed her plans. Suffice to say, my new Marks & Spencer pyjamas were not required for the early part of the night! A relatively rare event in our marriage of late.

Afterwards Mary said, ‘There now, darling, that should keep you going for a bit,’ and turned on her side and seemed to go to sleep. For a moment I felt a bit like a dog that has just been given a biscuit, but then drowsiness swept across me and I began to doze.

You can understand why when offered a bit of adventure, that Fred will take it. The whole scheme escalates, as they begin to work out how to make it work – will it ultimately be a triumph or a disaster?

This novel worked for us on several levels. Firstly, there was the satire on bureaucracy – with the civil servants all toadying up, and passing the blame down, the governmental food chain of which Fred is near the bottom. This immediately reminds one of the wonderful TV comedy, Yes Minister with the sublimely manipulative Sir Humphrey Appleby completely controlling his Minister; but also to the antics of real spin doctors in recent times.

Then on another level, it’s about following your dream. The Shiekh has a simple one: he wants his people to be able to fish salmon. He realises that his ‘grand projet’ is idealist, but he has faith, he believes it can happen -even if it puts his life in danger from opposing factions within his region.  But dreams can also be shattered. Harriet’s fiance is a soldier, fighting in Iraq, and here the story veres away from comedy into something quite dark.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the format of the novel. It combines two similar but differing forms into one seamless whole.  The main body of the text, certainly during the first half of the novel is written in letters – varying from e-mails to interdepartmental memos, and including the occasional press release or bit of reportage. Then Fred’s diaries are introduced, and these gradually overtake the comedy of the epistles, with their more meditative and serious tone, which makes the farce of the inevitable ending a real shock.

The characters are great.  Fred starts off as a typical boffin, but grows in stature throughout the book; Harriet begins as an immensely capable young woman who gets to reveal her vulnerable side; the Sheikh is lovely and mysterious; and Mary – she sacrifices life for work, but she is so unsympathetic, so you can’t feel sorry for her for long.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, loving both the format and characters giving it 9/10, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Torday’s novels. Hopefully we’ll catch up with the opinions of those who weren’t quite so sure about it next month, when we’ll also be discussing The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

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To explore on Amazon UK via my affiliate link, click below:

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters


12 thoughts on “Book Group Report – the spirit of Sir Humphrey lives on …

  1. I enjoyed this book too, reading it last year with my book group. Most people were a bit lukewarm towards it, but I was one of the few who thought it was good. My initial reaction was that the project was completely barmy, but after I thought of the book as nonsensical tale I began to enjoy it for what it is. As it drew to it’s inevitable dramatic conclusion I was actually hoping the project would be successful and that salmon would run up the waters of the Wadi Aleyn in the heart of the mountains of Heraz.

    I liked the way Torday showed how his characters developed and I enjoyed the satire (Yes Minister!, indeed). I also liked the way he contrasted the secular western world with the faith-based societies of the Middle East.

    • I had the same experience as you Margaret – once I got behind Fred, I really wanted it to work. For the Shiekh, it was a real case of “If you build it, they will come.” (Field of Dreams) and you had to admire his faith.

  2. my only touching with this is I caught couple parts it on books at bedtime ,I can see the humor in it thou it has that mad satire bit in it like yes minister ,not sure I ll read it thou ,but what I heard was fun ,all the best stu

  3. Oh so glad you enjoyed it! It really is an innovative and very well-written book. His best, I think, but the others are also very good.

  4. I havent read this one because it got lots of hype initially and then also mentioned fishing which I just didnt think would interest me. However your review has made me ponder the fact that I might have made some hasty assumptions. I do have his ghost story though which I am going to go in hunt of pronto!

    • The fishing is incidental really, Simon. You should give him a go though, I’m looking forward to reading much more of him, I’d be interested to see how you get on.

  5. I’m a big fan of Torday in general and his debut novel in particular, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have “Salmon Fishing” on my shelf waiting for a second read, something that, classics aside, is quite rare for me. Like Simon, I would not normally get hooked by the idea of a fishing novel, but I agree with you that it is better summed up as a satire on modern officialdom and a book about following your dreams.

    • It really was very different, David. It’s a rare comic novel that pulls it off and also achieves a balance of emotions and serious bits too.

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