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Great excuse to go fishing again

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday February 5, 2011

Review by Conrad Walters

In his fiction debut, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Paul Torday tickled funny bones across the world. The book was an absurdist take on political spin and used pseudo-official sources to recount imaginary events, namely a rich sheik's vision to import salmon to the desert. Subsequent books could never hope to recycle those inventive techniques, although they did draw restrained praise. But Torday's latest, a thriller, disappoints.The action-packed story - and the novel is not short on plot - concerns Richard Gaunt, an aimless British veteran of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. As a result of an overly mechanical plot, the former soldier finds himself in the opening pages inadvertently abducted at the behest of a rich Middle Eastern man. The mysterious Mr Khan offers Gaunt 10,000 to marry an attractive woman, said to be from Afghanistan.It is an implausible start but no less than that of Salmon Fishing, so many readers will give Torday the benefit of the doubt. That faith is soon squandered.Gaunt, of course, falls for the dame and the book careens from thriller to romance with language that ought to be tongue in cheek but shows little sign of being that. After a registry-office marriage and a heart-stopping escape from Mr Khan and his goons, Gaunt holds his hormones at bay while his bride, Adeena, declares her fear that she will never be safe:"That's nonsense," I told her. She started to tremble. The passion that swept through me was overwhelming. I let go of her and stood back."We mustn't," I said, more to myself than to her."You are my husband," she said. "It is your legal right. You can come with me upstairs to my bedroom."When the gallant Gaunt declines, Adeena asks:"Do you not find me attractive?""I find you very attractive," I said, gritting my teeth.If this sort of corny exchange peppered the entire book instead of popping out like some literary whack-a-mole game, the book might pass as Torday's lampooning of the thriller and romance genres. Sadly, that does not seem the case. What do leap out are the inconsistencies.Gaunt's new Afghan bride (blonde, no less) is fluent in English during one scene and too exhausted to think in the language in another. Elsewhere, she claims never to have heard the word "darling". The weather is sunny when he wakes one morning; seemingly 15 minutes later, storms threaten.In a flashback, Gaunt is on patrol in Iraq when a bomb goes off and readers are asked to believe one of the first things he does is ask a shopkeeper for the name of a song playing on the market's loudspeaker. (This is meant to lodge a plot element in the reader's mind so Torday can re-use it for the story's climax.) Two paragraphs later, the narrator says he suffered temporary deafness in the blast, so how he conducted the conversation is perplexing.Certainly, there are elements of More Than You Can Say that do work. The pace never slows as Gaunt and Adeena flee Mr Khan and Britain's security services, who harbour their own suspicions about Adeena's shadowy circumstances. Threats of terrorism also hang over the characters with convincing menace. Gaunt is perceptive and appealingly open about his flaws, even if he does veer towards the overly macho at times.And yet, for all of that, it is difficult not to direct Torday's fans to return to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen for a second read rather than this stain on his reputation.MORE THAN YOUCAN SAYPaul TordayOrion, 304pp, $33

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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