I wasn’t sure that I’d like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen as its title put me off. In fact I only read it because it was my face-to-face Book Club choice. It sounded far too quirky and I’ve never had much interest in going fishing – but I did like it. I even liked all the details about salmon and the conditions necessary for them to thrive. Of course, the conditions in the Yemen are completely wrong and that is the conundrum that Dr Alfred Jones has to solve when Sheikh Muhammad wants scientific advice on how best to introduce salmon fishing into the Yemen. The sheikh has an estate in Scotland where he pursues his great love of fly fishing.
I didn’t get on at first with the format of the book. The story unfolds through a series of diary entries, letters, emails, extracts from Hansard and reports, but after a few entries I found myself enjoying it and being entertained by the satire of bureaucracy and politics. The project is completely barmy, but once I thought of it as nonsensical tale I began to enjoy the book for what it is.
Dr Jones is dead against the idea at the start but is forced into considering it by his bosses and eventually by the prime minister who sees it as the ideal photo opportunity – one of him not only fishing in a wadi, but catching the first salmon in the Yemen. Alfred is not a happy man at home either. He and his wife Mary have been married for over 20 years. Their relationship is distant at the beginning and becomes increasingly estranged the more he gets involved in the project. They both come across as dull, boring and pompous.
His life begins to change when he meets Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who works for the Land Agents acting for the Sheikh. Harriet is the opposite of Mary, young and attractive and Alfred noticed immediately that she dressed
… as if she was about to go out to lunch at a smart restaurant rather than for a hard day’s work in the office. Mary always says it is demeaning for working women to dress themselves up like that. She herself is a strong believer in sensible, practical working clothes which do not accentuate the wearer’s femininity. (pages 21 -2)
Indeed, as Alfred begins to warm to the project under the sheikh’s influence his life is changed completely. He becomes more human, and not so totally absorbed in his small world as a fisheries scientist where his main preoccupation was with the cadis fly larva. It is through his diaries that we see his world opening up and he moves from being an atheist to someone who believes in belief. He also begins to fall for Harriet, whose fiancÃ© is a soldier missing somewhere in Iraq.
There is also much in this book contrasting the secular western world with the faith-based societies of the Middle East. The sheikh contrasts the UK class system with the tribal system prevalent in the Yemen. He considers that there is a lot of snobbery in the UK and people don’t seem to know what class they belong to with the result that the country is ridden with class prejudices, whereas in the Yemen there are many different ranks that are accepted without question – each person knows their own place and there is no fear of ridicule or restraint (paraphrased from pages 52-3).
However, he knows that the Yemeni are sometimes violent and quick to pick up a gun to finish an argument and this is one reason he wishes to introduce them to fly fishing. He has noticed that fishermen have patience and tolerance and fishing would change his countrymen’s nature.
This a light comic novel, much of it complete but enjoyable nonsense. Some of it such Prime Minister’s Question time and the interviews didn’t seem credible. Parts of it made me laugh – the ridiculous way politics and companies conduct their business for example. As it draws to it’s inevitable dramatic conclusion I was actually hoping the project would be successful and that salmon would run up the waters of the Wadi Aleyn in the heart of the mountains of Heraz.