Paul Torday’s phenomenal success with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was always going to be a hard act to follow.
Paul Torday’s phenomenal success with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was always going to be a hard act to follow. The idea of it was the thing — a wonderfully funny, mad idea, carried out economically in an epistolary style that rushed along from start to finish in a single fluid motion.
‘When once you have thought of big men and little men,’ a curmudgeonly Johnson said of Gulliver’s Travels, ‘it is very easy to do all the rest,’ but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen showed just how crucial that good idea is. Torday’s new novel, More Than You Can Say, at its outset, seems to offer the same kind of treat. Its hero, Richard Gaunt, ex-soldier, ex-restaurateur, ex-lover, unemployable and volatile, has an unusual run of luck at the card table and accepts a double or quits bet that, setting out at 2 a.m., he can walk from Mayfair to Oxford in time for lunch at the Randolph.
This is an engaging start, but the walk, as it turns out, is not the story. Some distance short of his destination Richard is kidnapped and taken, James Bond fashion, to a sumptuous country house where a suave Afghan, with impeccable manners and a superlative chef, makes him a dubious offer which he hasn’t the wit to refuse. This hors d’oeuvre sets the scene for the action to follow — sinister ‘heavies’, a mysterious Afghan blonde descended from Iskander’s conquering army, secret service, terrorists — a racy narrative of stock characters inhabiting a black-and-white world of good and bad.
The novel has its heart, however, in the grey spaces in between this story. Through a series of flashbacks, Richard Gaunt reveals his soldiering experiences in Baghdad and Afghanistan and his inability to readjust to normal life. His failure to connect with his family, the collapse of his relationship with his girlfriend, his dissociation from everyday things, his shortness of temper and the sleeping and waking nightmares make this neither a thriller nor a spy story — not John Buchan or Ian Fleming — but a post-traumatic stress disorder novel in a tradition that stretches back to the shell-shock literature of the first world war.
Richard Gaunt is a nice bloke — we know that from his nice middle-class background, his nice girlfriend and from his horror of what he did and witnessed on active service. PTSD has turned him into an unpleasant and unloved waster with a withering ‘1000 yard stare’ whose moral compass swings from self-disgust and self-pity to a self-justification only occasionally relieved by self-knowledge.
I had gone into the army feeling cheerful, optimistic, certain that I could make the world a better place, confident in the expectation of a happy future when I came out. It hadn’t worked out like that.
It took me a while to realise what had changed. At first I thought it was everyone else who was behaving oddly. After a while I realised something had gone wrong inside me. Very wrong.
This damaged soul sits uncomfortably — as it is meant to — among the country-house living and field sports which are handled here with as sure a touch as they are in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Whether Torday’s gift for social comedy and a slightly improbable plot are convincingly integrated with the darker psychological themes of this entertaining book is something that readers may wonder about.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 19, 2011Tags: Book review, Fiction, Paul torday