With so many books being published, it’s no surprise that publishers are always on the lookout for something new – something that will make a book stand out. It’s true now, and it will have been true in 2007, when Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was first released.
Paul Torday’s debut novel has not one but two characteristics that differentiate it from most other novels. The first is the bizarre subject matter (salmon fishing in the Yemen?!) The second is that there’s no conventional narrative – the story is told through letters, emails, interviews and excerpts from Hansard. Two USPs in one novel can’t be bad. Although, at first glance, neither of these conceits sound particularly exciting. For me, one of them was more successful than the other.
The story is based around a Yemeni sheik who loves salmon fishing, and enlists the (initially rather unwilling) help of a British fisheries expert to bring salmon to a river in the Yemen. A river that is dry for much of the year, in a desert climate. It could have been a very short story, but in fact it made for a rather engaging novel. I had empathy with the main character, even if he is a bit dense at times. I followed the story as it progressed, and I wanted to know how it would end. The story is slightly ridiculous at times, but that’s because the book is a comedy, and the story is played for comedy value (I’ll come back to that later). I’m quite sure that if Paul Torday had wanted, he could have written it as a fully credible serious piece.
What didn’t work so well for me was the conceit of telling the story from the perspective of the main characters through their letters and emails, through their responses to questions while being interviewed, and in the case of the protagonist, through his diary entries. Had this been followed faithfully it could have either made for an impossibly dry, tedious novel, or would have required a considerably higher and more sustained level of comedy than the book actually has (did I say I’ll come back to that later?)
To avoid the book being either dull, or a prolonged stand-up routine, the author had a cunning plan. He cheated. Diary entries, correspondence and answers to interview questions are all just thinly disguised narrative. Amusing, engaging, interesting narrative, but narrative all the same. I don’t know, maybe I’m too uptight, but if an author tells me they’re giving me a piece of business correspondence, I kind of expect it to read like a piece of business correspondence. If it launches into an explanation of how the writer’s marriage is going wrong, complete with real-time dialogue exchanges, then I can’t help noticing that’s just not how business correspondence works.
Likewise with interview responses. I’ve seen extracts from the kind of interviews that are portrayed in the book. I’ve seen high-profile characters being grilled by commons select committees. They often have something to hide. They’re generally guarded, cautious, nervous, indignant, untrusting. I’ve never seen them chatty. I’ve never seen them go off on a ‘by-the-way’ tangent, relate a conversation (with complete word-for-word dialogue), give away personal secrets of the people they’re being asked about, tell a story they don’t absolutely have to tell, with all the descriptive ephemera of a novel. All of this did what for me is a cardinal sin for a writer of fiction – it disturbed my willingness to suspend my disbelief.
I managed to put my difficulty with the format to the back of my mind, and I did enjoy the book, although there were a few times when it became bit tedious (such as the extracts from the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary’s unpublished memoirs). The reading group notes emphasise the contrast portrayed in the story between the secular west, and the faith-based societies of the middle east. They ask; ‘Which world comes out with most credit, do you think?’ There is a growing strand of mysticism as the book progresses, but though the conflict between different outlooks and lifestyles is addressed, it isn’t pushed too hard – the author leaves the reader to think about it themselves.
Coming back (eventually) to the comedy value; I would say the book is rather more mildly amusing than full-on comedy. But then, I’ve read so-called ‘comedy novels’ in the past without realising what I was reading was intended to be comedy until I’d almost finished. I don’t know if that’s because my sense of comedy is lacking, or a damning indictment of the quality of comedy in so-called comedy novels. A lot of them do seem to read like the screenplay of a very weak sit-com. In my defence, I have read some genuinely funny novels (I would recommend anything by Douglas Adams or Ben Elton). Perhaps my taste in comedy is somewhat unusual.
Anyway, back to SFINTY. For me, the vehicle of the story (letters, emails, interviews, etc) doesn’t really work. More and more I see authors shackling themselves (or are they having it forced upon them by publishers?) by attempting to write within some narrow, quirky gimmick. Like telling their story through one day – the same day – of every year in the lives of their characters (that one didn’t work for me either). I can’t see what the problem is with telling a story straight, without gimmicks. And I wonder whether authors (and readers) aren’t having this foisted upon them by publishers’ misguided craving for anything different, however ridiculous it might be.
That said, I did enjoy SFINTY, even if the author did cheat with the format. And I have to admit that wrapping up the story with a summary of the conclusions of a House of Commons Foreign Affairs select committee is rather cool. So if you haven’t already read it, I would recommend the book.
Final Note: The book is published by Phoenix, who are (and I quote) ‘An Hachette Livre UK Company’ The fact that a publisher thinks it’s correct to put ‘an’ before a word beginning with ‘H’ tells you everything there is to know about what’s wrong with the publishing industry today!
Text and photos © Graham Wright 2018
Copyright for the cover of ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’, in the absence of a credit within the book, presumably belongs to the publisher.