Saturday, 27 January 2007

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Paul Torday
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson €??)

FISHY stories are one thing, but this weird and wonderful first novel is a shaggy dog story too.

Quiet grey fisheries scientist Fred Jones is ordered to co-operate in a plan to bring salmon to the Yemen - to send the pride of the north Atlantic lepping up the wadis on the spring spate.

Naturally he says no. And in a trice, there he is, on the Scottish moors fishing with a saintly sheik and preparing to make a strange scientific breakthrough.

Torday's first book is an odd mixture: tender-hearted accounts of true love, acid satires of the British civil service, al-Qa'ida, big business, modern marriage and newspaper reporting.

It's really funny. Sometimes Torday parodies the style of small but rather self-important papers. A Scottish local paper reports that "the alleged would-be murderer was restrained... with a size 8 Ally Shrimp treble hook on a 15-pound line" and his captor "took less than five minutes to play him".

There are warming descriptions of character. Dr Jones's wife is a grasping woman with no pity except for herself. A colleague is engaged, to a nice boy just like dad, and their love, their considerate distance, is like a draught of clear water.

This is a book you can't put down easily. Torday has an easy command of the gripping twists that play readers through the streams of a story, and at the same time he's a master of character.

It's a roman a clef in a way - British politicians are snickeringly identifiable here. But it's more than that.

It has its faults - the ending is fairly obvious from two-thirds of the way in - but it's a tour de force even with those faults.

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