In Reading Corner I say a few words about the book I’ve just finished reading. You can see what I’m reading next on the left-hand side of my blog.
Dr Alfred Jones is a fusty civil servant and fisheries scientist whose life is fading to the grey of his cubicled walls. His work is pedestrian and his twenty-year marriage is stagnant, then a ludicrous project comes his way. A wealthy sheikh wants to bring salmon to the wadis of the Yemen so his countrymen can enjoy of fly-fishing, and experience the peace and harmony he feels when fishing at his second home in the Scottish highlands. The youthful and charming Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who manages the sheikh’s affairs, is tasked with bringing a reluctant Dr Jones on board and the three of them must work together to achieve the seemingly impossible. A slightly barmy set-up, but one that allows for romance, comedy and exploring the broader themes of faith, hope and self-discovery.
Paul Torday’s hilarious novel is a breeze to read. It is constructed from a series of emails, diary notes, official reports and newspaper articles and other epistolary sources – allowing Torday to reveal his characters’ innermost thoughts, but also to hold back important details and let the story unfold in its own time. As the project develops the prime minister’s spin doctor weighs in. Sniffing out a good news story from the Middle East he is ruthless in his attempts to make the project a success. His calculating ways and self-importance are a ripe source of satire. We learn much of his side of the story from his unpublished autobiography, and also when he is under interrogation. It is not until the end that we find out why the project, and those involved, are under investigation.
Torday creates humour by exposing the Britishness of his characters (the awkward Dr Jones and the polite Harriet) and also the institutions (the bureaucratic civil servants and the risible politicians). The sheikh is a foil to this Britishness, he radiates a calm mysticism that makes the cynical Brits believe that they can succeed, if they have faith. This is an entertaining and cleverly constructed story carrying the main message that we’re all human.
The feature film based on the book is in cinemas now. As always, I would suggest reading the book first, but the film is a superb Brit comedy that has softer edges than the novel. You can read my review here.
And here’s the trailer: