Tuesday, March 04, 2008

book review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


Putting together a narrative that is a collection of documents will turn some people off this book by Paul Torday. The reason is that it has been highly praised as being one of the books of last year and as a result is included in a lot of the promotions run by book shops keen to get you to leave the store with three books instead of just one.

One friend described it to me as a clever indictment of the Blair years and there are clear characters that jump out as fictional accounts of people you know well, So the spin doctor is Alistair Campbell, the PM is Blair but beyond that it is hard to draw too many parallels. Unless you go down the road of using salmon, as some sort of metaphor for weapons of mass destruction – sounds surreal just suggesting it – then the rest of the story is more genuine fiction.

Aside from the political satire, which is good, this is also a story about how faith can change lives. Not just faith in God but faith in a dream, an idea the project to get salmon swimming in the desert. In that respect Dr Alfred Jones is the key character that starts off in a stuffy job in the civil service working on something incredibly dull to do with fish and then ends up liberated from his dead end job, dead marriage and his old self.

He wanders through the political and cultural minefield that is planted around the British politicians and the sheik paying for the project and he becomes almost simplistic in his ideas about life. He also falls in love with Harriet, a young woman working on the project who suffers the loss of her fiancé who dies on a commando raid in Iran. Jones doesn’t really stand a chance with Harriet but against the backdrop of the sheik’s world, where faith makes everything possible, he holds a torch for her.

In the end the project ends in tragedy but for Jones it completes the liberation from his former life and sets him onto a life that he prefers to lead working with fish and water and living an almost hermetical existence.

If there is a moral from the story it has to be that those running the country and operating in the circles are pretty shallow and cynical people that are unable to see beyond the limits to their very stunted imaginations.

No doubt once you have started to write the book as a collection of documents – diaries, government memos and inquiries – then you have to stick with it. But at times it felt like the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole with Dr Jones’s diary and that level of humour was even kept up in the Hansard reports even when it was not a subject that incited humour.

The story carries it off but other authors trying this could fall into the trap of style being more than substance. It is also hard to imagine my young son picking this up in years to come and having the instance connection that those who have lived through Blair have. We know what it has been like to be involved with shady goings-on in the Middle East. Know the world of spin and the cynical politics that prize votes above everything else.

An interesting book that deserves to be praised but the fear is that it will date.

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