This is a delightful comedy based on the unlikely plan to release salmon into a river in the hot and dusty Arab state of Yemen. It deals with the nature of faith and the boundless optimism of hope, whilst also promoting the application of technical skills to a seemingly insolvable problem. And it has a sly dig at politics and the duplicity of politicians.
Paul Torday was both an engineer and a keen salmon fisherman, and spent time travelling around the middle east. So this, his first book, neatly brings together several areas in which he has expertise. It’s a classic example of an author “writing what he knows”.
The structure of the book is interesting. It purports to consist of a number of extracts taken from a parliamentary report; specifically from an investigation by the Foreign Affairs Committee into the ‘Yemen Salmon Fishing Project’. Instantly, we know that the project achieved national importance, although whether that is because of a positive or negative outcome remains unclear until the end. And while this format might sound rather dry, the writing is far from dull. The prose is engaging, light-hearted, warm and accessible.
What I liked about this book.
I liked the gentle humour and the way the plot gradually unfolded through the strategy of emails, letters, diary entries and interview transcripts.
The voice of the main character, Dr Alfred Jones, was excellently portrayed, along with the central female character, Harriet. The Prime Minister’s slimy Director of Communications was called Peter Maxwell – a name that resounds with connotations – and he too was drawn in a way that was three-dimensional, transcending my initial expectations.
In addition, the unlikeliness of the project was balanced by convincing technical explanations of how it might be achieved (and this was done in an interesting way). So at no point did I, as a reader, doubt the central engine of the story, which was the plan to introduce river salmon into the Yemen.
The use of the epistolary format worked very well on the whole. The pithy emails between Dr Jones and his wife were particularly entertaining. And where the story would benefit from withholding or bringing forward certain revelations, the author deftly rearranged the time sequence to accommodate the plot.
What didn’t work so well.
There are limits to the epistolary format and these became obvious at some points. For example, the interview transcripts revealed far more emotional and visual detail than you would expect in a formal interview and the explanations given in the story for this detail were unconvincing.
Alfred’s wife Mary was not drawn convincingly. Despite the comedic effect of their email exchanges, she was a too hard-hearted and inflexible. A touch of warmth would have turned her into a three-dimensional character.
What I learnt as a writer.
One great advantage of using emails, diary entries, etc. is that the reader can get inside the heads of many characters, can hear a variety of voices and can see the world from a number of different points of view. This jump from one person to another can be clearly signalled in the text, reducing confusion. Mixing up letters with transcripts and diaries gives depth. This seems a great way to deliver a story and it is one I might like to experiment with as a writer.
A story needs to be convincing. The writer has to take the reader by the hand and lead them through the plot and the reader has to be able to suspend disbelief and be a willing traveller on the journey. While this worked very well in most places the epistolary format does have limitations, one being that we have to be convinced a character would really write that down or use those words in an interview. As far as this book was concerned, I was willing to suspend disbelief. But it is a tricky thing to pull off.