Book Review: A Novel of Middling Merit [Archives:2007/1068/Education]

July 16 2007

Reviewed by Dr Murari Prasad
Faculty of Arts
Sana'a University
[email protected]

Paul Torday's debut novel is unusually interesting in that it has an essentially unique subject accompanied by clever plot dynamics. The story unfolds in a collage of emails, interviews, letters, media clippings and diary entries as well as transcripts of question hour at the House of Commons. This inventively unconventional device propels the tale from Whitehall to the highlands of Scotland to those of Yemen. Here is an epistolary novel leavened by postmodern flavour. However, the ingenious narration has both its real strengths and glaring weaknesses. But more on that later.

The novel opens with a letter from Ms Harriet Chetwode-Talbot of the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence, Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs, Smith Squire, London, on behalf of a cash rich Yemeni client who wishes to sponsor a well-funded flagship project to ” introduce salmon, and the sport of salmon fishing ,” in Yemen. The reply to this letter from Ms Silly Thomas, assistant to Dr Alfred Jones, is discouraging “on a number of fundamental grounds”. Contrary to these objections, recommendations in support of the project pour in from various quarters.

The project, described as “risible” and “insane”, relates to salmon breeding in the wadis (valleys) of Hadramaut. The enterprise will generate angling tourism and will also segue into Anglo-Yemeni co-operation with “wider implications for perceptions of UK involvement in the Middle East”. Peter Maxwell, director of communications in the British Prime Minister's office, writes to a Blair-like Prime Minister, Jay Vent, about the brownie points the venture promises, such as photo opportunities for salmon-fishing in Yemen to deflect the public outcry against military intervention in the region, as well as other domestic and diplomatic dividends. The Yemeni client is an “Anglophone” and a key potential ally in Yemeni councils. The Prime Minister knows nothing about fishing but likes the idea of a photograph of himself landing a salmon in the Middle East. He appreciates the political dimension to the project and gives it a go-ahead.

The central figure in the novel is Dr Alfred (Fred) Jones, who works at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence and has the proper qualifications to assess the technical feasibility of the undertaking. At first glance, he declares the project “absurd” and “scientifically nonsensical”, but eventually he gives in to political pressure. Dragooned into the job by the threat of his sack, Fred gets down to the nitty gritty of the Sheikh's dream mission. He is won over by the persuasive powers of the elegant Harriet, and by the influence of Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tilhama. As Fred is caught up in the details of introducing salmon to the deserts of Yemen, his professional and domestic life is disrupted. The moving parts of Torday's novel are the relationship issues between Fred and Mary and between Harriet and her fiance, Captain Robert Matthews, who is part of the British Marines out in Basra, and winds up on a covert mission in Iran. Fred and Harriet begin to eye each other and their quiet romance is another thread of the Salmon story.

Yanked out of his modest domestic life, Fred falls in his mid-life crisis as his banker wife is increasingly drawn to a lucrative location away from the UK. He begins to re-evaluate his life in the light of the Sheikh's devoutness, faith, humility and goodness. The latter's quasi-religious mission casts a spell on Fred and he begins to believe in the impossible with stirrings of new faith. He is the only character in the novel who grows from his nondescript days as a fisheries expert to the moment when he is whisked off by the project's point-woman, Harriet, to the Yemeni Sheikh's Scottish sporting centre to his days in Yemen, where he is trying to overcome one difficulty after another to make the project plausible even in the middle of his marital crisis. Harriet's emotional rupture is another human side of the Salmon story.

The dream project fails as the fabulously rich Yemeni sponsor and Prime Minister Vent are felled by a religious fanatic while launching the Yemen salmon project. An al-Qa'eda assassin had been disarmed in his first attempt at the Sheikh by the latter's smart ghillie, but at this time no dumb luck comes along. The prime minister's spin doctor, Peter Maxwell, is horrified. In his testimony of events Fred recounts what has happened: “When the waters receded and most of the security people and the sheikh's bodyguard had headed off downstream to see if they could find the bodies, I stood by the mouth of the channel feeding salmon into the wadi. I watched fish after fish enter the flow, turn as it smelt the water, and head upstream. I stood there without moving for a long time, and my heart was too full to speak. At first a few journalists and TV people came down and tried to get me to comment on what had just happened, but they weren't interested in my salmon. They only wanted to talk about the accident and the prime minister.They weren't interested either in what had happened to the Sheikh After a while they went away, and an hour or two later I heard one of the Chinooks lift off, taking them all back to Sana'a to file their stories” (p.305).

Torday's narrative has its moments but the novel's denouement is pretty tame. There are many perspectives on the major episodes threading through the plot but without any controlling narrator's point of view. Artifice dominates art, and points of view don't hang together. The author has deftly interwoven pastiches of political spin, exploited their potential for satire but the cataclysm is lacking in dramatic effect. Dramatic suspense is not adequately built in the plot; and there is no emotional depth either. In addition, there are copy-editing slips in the novel. All in all, Torday's talent as a novelist reaches the halfway mark in this debut offering. However, given his potential gifts, he may fish out a better work next time.