On the one hand…
Sheik Muhammad ibn Zaidi is an idealist with amazing zeal or he is an incredible flake with money to burn. He dreams of creating a salmon fishery in the streams of Yemen, where he believes the rainy season will magically transform trinkling desert streams into cool pools of Scottish salmon. Well, not exactly in the desert, but in the adjacent mountains. Sheik Muhammad is a part-time resident of the United Kingdom, in Glen Tulloch to be exact, about 300 kms north of Glasgow. There he hunts for grouse and fishes for salmon on his sprawling northern Scotland estate.
Once he began fly-fishing for salmon, the sheik was hooked. He became so passionate about the hobby that he convinced himself the sport of salmon fishing had to be brought to Yemen; an absolutely wacky idea in the eyes of anyone with an iota of reason and a smidgeon of geographic knowledge. The sun parched, largely desert country of Yemen is located in the Middle East, south of Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and it is a region better suited for camels and palm trees than salmon and fly rods!
The writer, Paul Torday, weaves his political, scientific and romantic tale into a story whose plausibility and possibility grows with each succeeding page.
The sheik through his agent, the young and attractive Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, finds his salmon project manager in Dr. Alfred Jones, a middle-aged scientist at the National Center for Fisheries Excellence in London.
The political protagonists of the story, Communications Director Peter Maxwell, and Prime Minister Jay Vent, add another realistic aspect to the story. Political demographic studies have analysed voter patterns from various perspectives: age, product consumption, gender, ethnicity, but none has taken Maxwell’s direction. PM Vent is beside himself when Maxwell describes the vote potential of the over four million anglers in the country. The PM’s electoral hope is reinforced when he views government policy from different angles. Past government policy with its emphasis on military and economic involvement in the middle east likely costs votes, the more benign aspect of the salmon project may win votes. Honey attracts more bees than vinegar; peaceful and nonviolent policies could trump malevolence and aggression.
With an interplay of varied literary styles, Torday takes the reader on an enjoyable fantasy journey which ends with some surprises. The scientific goals are attained perfectly, the political ones not so for unexpected reasons, and the romantic ones are never resolved, ending instead in a less than acceptable way for some readers.
I liked the book
This is an enjoyable book because it is light, entertainingly well-written, and interlaced with a number of good story lines: romance, suspense, an interesting ending with some unexpected surprises. Torday kicks up the entertainment value of the story by changing the literary style, presenting texts from letters, emails and business memos written by the characters in the story.
Many readers may empathize with Dr. Jones, a henpecked middle-aged husband in a marriage of questionable solidity. His wife, an executive in the world of finance, is the greater income earner of the childless couple and she uses this income imbalance to intimidate and manipulate her husband. It is easy to understand why he is so easily attracted to the younger Harriet Chetwode Talbot, the sheik’s agent for the salmon enterprise. Compared to Jones’ wife, Harriet is a sensitive and vulnerable woman and he finds dreaming of a relationship with her irresistible.
The very wealthy Sheik Muhammad who is funding the salmon project is a religious man and surprisingly empathetic of other people who are troubled in their lives. His dream of populating Yemen with a salmon running stream is an act of faith rather than a project of science, possibly the crucial hub around which the story revolves. As participants become more immersed in his project, they become more introspective about their own lives, their own guiding principles and the values by which they live. As they work on the project, more and more it begins to transform itself into one of plausibility rather than impossibility.
What I disliked
The book drags at times: the political analyses are a bit tedious; the reader may become confused when the story surprisingly switches into an interviewer-interviewe mode midway into the novel. The resulting confusion lasts briefly but gets reinforced by the use of different literary styles with the introduction of texts from letters, emails and memos written by the various protagonists of the story. The style change is a little disconcerting the first time, but then it comfortably grows on the reader as it adds more colour and depth to the characters. The scientific aspects of the story may satisfy those with an engineering bent but most readers may find these parts heavy reading, if not downright boring.
A satisfying ending?
Finally, the threads of all the characters’ stories are tied together at the conclusion of the book in a surprising way. Many readers may view how things end for Peter Maxwell as just desserts. Who is to judge? What happens to our hero, Dr. Jones, is sadder for the reader who may expect something glorious and happy rather than what Jones himself finds satisfying and comforting for him. He is quite accepting of his life’s outcome, whereas most readers would have wished more for him. As for the Prime Minister and the sheik, let us just say their ending in the story is monumental.
A fish story? Maybe!
On the other hand…
Is it possible this novel is a polemic of cynicism and criticism castigating and denigrating the western way of life as being one based on materialism, on things we can count, measure, sell and buy? The sheik of the story preaches a message of faith leading to hope and ultimately love. Faith is belief and the universal message is as once depicted in a Hollywood movie, “Build it and they will come,” or believe in it and it will happen.
Is Torday simply preaching a laconic message of believing in
something in order for it to come about? He presents a good story to display his theme but of course, when one is the author, the story goes where you want it to go; everything can happen. Real life may not be so direct, so predictable, and so certain. Is there a destiny and are we masters of it? Norman Vincent Peale, Tony Robbins and others would agree with Torday’s sheik. There is power in positive thinking believe it and it will be!
Those who believe swear by the philosophy; the cynics remain cemented in doubt.
To which camp do you belong?