Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
About the book:
What does it take to make us believe in the impossible?
For Dr. Alfred Jones, life is a quiet mixture of civil service at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence and marriage to Mary—an ambitious, no-nonsense financier. But a strange turn of fate from an unexpected direction forces Jones to upend his existence and spend all of his time in pursuit of another man’s ludicrous dream. Can there be salmon in the Yemen? Science says no. But if resources are limitless and the visionary is inspired, maybe salmon fishing in the Yemen isn’t impossible. Then again, maybe nothing is.
About the author:
PAUL TORDAY studied English literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, before embarking on a business career. He lives in Northumberland. This is his first book.
This discussion guide is also available in PDF format
1. How does Torday use different kinds of texts—e-mail, diaries, magazine articles, government reports—to tell the story of the Yemen Salmon Project? How do these different formats fit together and complement one another? Why do you think Torday chose to tell the story in this way? How might the novel have been different had it been written in a more conventional and uniform narrative voice?
2. What does the Yemen Salmon Project mean personally to the various characters—the Sheikh, Alfred, Harriet, Peter Maxwell? What does each character hope to get from the project? What do they get that they don’t expect? How does the meaning of the project change for them over the course of the novel?
3. On page 196, the Sheikh says, "I want to present God with the opportunity to perform a miracle, a miracle that he will perform if he so wills it." What is the Sheikh’s motivation for undertaking the Salmon Project? Discuss this quote in the context of the actual outcome of the project. How is the Sheikh submitting (or not submitting) himself to God? If the Sheikh had known what the outcome was going to be, do you think that he would have gone forward with the project?
4. On page 54, the Sheikh observes that in the UK, "No one seems to know what class they belong to. Whatever class they do belong to, they are ashamed of and want to appear as if they are from another." Is this true in the United States, too? How are class structure and class anxiety different here? The Sheikh also observes that fishermen "in their passion for their sport ignore all things to do with class." Do you agree with the Sheikh? What other sports or activities transcend class in this way? If the Sheikh had survived, do you think that the Salmon Project could have had the transcendent effect on Yemenites that he hoped for?
5. Compare the Salmon Project to Peter Maxwell’s Prizes for the People TV pilot. Both involve exporting Western culture to Islamic societies. How are the two projects different? What is the difference between the Sheikh’s goals and Peter Maxwell’s?
6. For many of the characters, the Salmon Project is about images and symbolism. What is the symbolic importance of the project to Peter Maxwell, to the Sheikh, and to the Al-Qaeda militants who are trying to stop it? Discuss the Sheikh’s rhetorical question, "What difference does one more mosque or one more hospital make?" (page 196). Are symbolic projects sometimes more useful than practical ones? Can you think of any symbolic projects in the real world that are comparable to the Yemen Salmon Project? Were they successful? What does success mean for a symbolic project, as opposed to a practical one?
7. How does the plight of Harriet’s fiancé, Robert Matthews, affect the tone of the novel as a whole? How does the inclusion of a plot involving the fate of an individual soldier in Iraq relate to the novel’s larger theme of the tensions between the West and the Middle East?
8. Discuss Alfred’s relationship with Mary. How does it evolve over the course of the novel? Why don’t Alfred and Mary get divorced in the end?
9. How does the Salmon Project change Alfred? Is he happier at the end of the novel than at the beginning? In what ways is he better off, and in what ways is he worse off?
10. The tone of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is hard to pin down; it sometimes seems to be pure political satire, but a few pages later it reads like a more cerebral novel. Which parts of the book did you find the funniest or the most effective as satire? Which were most emotionally affecting? How does Torday balance these elements? Did you prefer one to the others? Do you think the novel benefits or suffers from such a mix?
11. On page 144, the Sheikh tells Alfred, "Without faith, there is no hope and no love. Faith comes before hope, and before love." Do you agree with this? Why or why not? Later, when he is in the Yemen and the project has advanced further, Alfred reflects, "The word he had used was faith, but what he meant was belief. The first step was simple: it was to believe in belief itself . . ." What is the difference between faith and belief, as defined here?
12. There is a cinematic quality to Torday’s writing—his characters are fully realized, his settings easy to visualize. Can you picture Salmon Fishing in the Yemen as a movie? Who would you cast in the roles of Alfred, the Sheikh, Mary, and Harriet?