Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a fun but odd book. It’s a comedic satire about British government and politics, in which the government is keen to show their support for Middle East initiatives by tasking Dr Alfred Jones (who works at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence) with bringing salmon to live in the wadis of Yemen, at the request of an extremely rich sheikh. The idea of fishing for salmon in Yemen seems laughable, and is mocked by the media, politicians and scientists alike, but it’s up to Fred to make it happen, and somehow he manages to find a way.
It’s quite an unusual book because the story’s never told through a straightforward narrative, but instead makes use of a variety of different media – diary entries, scientific reports, interview transcripts, company memos etc. It works well, but because of the use of the scientific reports in particular, it can occasionally get a little dry and very technical. I didn’t mind reading about the growth cycle of salmon and the demands of their living conditions because it was something I knew nothing about and so I did find it quite interesting, but at the same time it was very detailed (and a little dull) in places, and there was always the risk that it would get too technical and put people off. It didn’t put me off as such, but I did find myself paying less attention to these parts of the narrative.
I know the novel is supposed to be a satire, and a comedy to boot, but I did find some of the characters to be rather unbelievable. I thought the characterisation of Fred’s wife Mary and Peter Maxwell the spin doctor went too far, and they became almost caricatures. I just don’t believe that anyone would act in the way those two did, they were far too over the top for my liking. I did like the way that Fred’s character was developed throughout the book, and it was clear that he was falling for Harriet, but it seemed like the main reason they didn’t get together was because she was grieving for Robert, and that was a bit irksome for me. It was clear from the moment that Robert was mentioned for the first time that he was going to get killed off. It was so obvious to me that that was what was going to happen, and it just felt kind of lazy. Why did Robert even have to exist in the first place? He didn’t add much to the story, and believe it or not it isn’t compulsory for two characters to get together unless one is grieving for somebody else. Even without Robert, there could have been all kinds of reasons for Harriet and Fred to not get together (and I think it’s far better for them to not get together), but inventing and killing a character to prevent this from happening (or so it seemed to me), is completely unnecessary.
It was clear all along that the plan to introduce salmon fishing in the Yemen had resulted in tragedy, and I had assumed that it would be due to some kind of terrorist plot or assassination. I didn’t foresee what would actually happen (just as Fred hadn’t foreseen it), and so I did quite like the surprise element which resulted in the death of the sheikh and prime minister. It’s not a happy ending as such, but at the same time there is a feeling of hope and success because the salmon did swim in the wadis, even though it was just the once. Fred and the sheikh had finally achieved the goal they set out to achieve such a long time before, but it came with a bittersweet edge as the sheikh was killed while fishing for the salmon for the first time (and I would assume that quite a lot of the salmon were killed by the disaster too).
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is an interesting book and a fun story. It sort of plods along gently so it will either hold your interest or it won’t. It was quite an enjoyable read, but the concept behind it is so daft that I couldn’t bring myself to care too much whether it was achieved or not. Either they would successfully introduce salmon into the wadis which I would find fairly unbelievable, or they would fail and I wouldn’t be surprised. I felt like there wasn’t really a lot at stake if the goal wasn’t achieved, and so it didn’t really matter to me either way. I liked seeing the character of Fred develop, but that’s probably not enough to sustain a whole novel. I did enjoy reading it, but I just felt it was lacking something, and it’s a bit tricky to put my finger on exactly what that something is.