Book Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

I have made every effort to make this review spoiler free!

During the half term break I read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, published in 2006. Even the title is intriguing – the absurdity reminded me vaguely of Round Ireland With a Fridge. I had already watched the BBC film which I enjoyed, however the film diverges from the plot of the book about halfway through, and as is always the case, the book is better.

The novel satirises the foreign policy of the early 2000s, and tells the story of a hapless civil servant who is dragged into a project to introduce salmon into the rivers of the Yemen in an attempt to distract the press from the Middle Eastern conflicts. The format of the book is what makes it stand out. It is presented as a report from a government select committee; a compilation of emails, texts, diary entries, TV transcripts and interviews. I personally like books that mix up different ways of presenting a story, because if you’re not keen on a particular way it will soon change to something different.

As is the case with most satirical novels, the characters tend to come across as exaggerated caricatures. The protagonist, Fred, is quite possibly the most mundane character ever created, mindlessly working 9-5. His marriage is devoid of love, as his wife prioritises her career over him. However, as he takes part in the salmon project, this dull man is introduced into a new world of possibility, where faith overcomes insurmountable obstacles.

Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt in the film adaptation

The main female character, Harriet, has drawn some criticism from many reviewers for being nothing but a fantasy. Indeed, for the first half of the novel she seemed that way: young, pretty, intelligent and generally flawless. However, she becomes a genuinely interesting character later on. Her boyfriend, a soldier, goes missing in mysterious circumstances and her sub-plot is basically one woman taking on the Ministry of Defence.

In my opinion, the most well written characters were the media-savvy Prime Minister, Jay Vent, and his Director of Communications, Peter Maxwell (who was gender-swapped into Patricia Maxwell in the film). They will literally do anything to keep the press happy, and ensure that if something goes wrong, they will be the last to get the blame. Even though they were highly exaggerated characters, many of their headline-grabbing schemes were uneasily true to life in this post-truth era, where sound bites are valued over truth.

Finally, the ending was what really left an impression on me, but as this is a spoiler free review I’ll let you discover that one for yourself. All I can say is that it is extremely unexpected, and is a far cry from the rather cheesy conclusion of the film.

Overall, this was a unique and fairly quick read. I would recommend it to anyone who is disenchanted with modern day politics. To quote Marina Lewycka, it is, “a cry for humanity in our target-driven, spin-riddled world.”


One thought on “Book Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

  1. I too enjoyed this book very much when I read it – I agree the absurdity of the title is intriguing, enough to pick it up and not be disappointed.

    Very good review, succinct and informative.

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