The two novels Mark Haddon published in the decade following The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, A Spot of Bother and The Red House, were both contemporary domestic dramas. Brisk, incisive and unsparingly honest about family dynamics, they were eminently readable; but as Haddon put it in a recent interview, when you consider the wide-open possibilities of the novel as a form, they were “a bit like having the Millennium Falcon but only using it for going to Sainsbury’s”.
His 2016 short-story collection The Pier Falls was a revelation: it blasted into space and followed Victorian explorers into the jungle; injected Greek myth with savage realism in “The Island”, and in “Wodwo” brought the medieval mystery of Gawain and the Green Knight into the present day.
The Porpoise gloriously expands the restless, visionary spirit of those tales. It is a version of Pericles, with a daughter abused by her father, another daughter lost and in danger, missing mothers and a man on the run who begins his story as an adventuring hero and ends it a broken wanderer. It spreads itself across two realities, opening among the contemporary elite as Philippe, whose family has been “part of a global aristocracy” since Hellenistic times, raises his daughter Angelica as his plaything.
Angelica’s mother died in the plane crash that triggered her birth; she is utterly isolated by wealth and rootlessness. Though they live in south-east England, “Beyond those dark hills right now it might as well be Nunavut. It might as well be the Skeleton Coast. Roasted hulks and sun-leathered corpses. It might as well be Pentapolis or Ephesus.”
In the play co-written by Shakespeare, Pericles is the challenger to an incestuous father. Seeking to marry the king’s daughter, he must solve the riddle that encodes her abuse: a “confession hidden in plain sight”, similarly insulated by wealth and status. Here Philippe’s adversary is Darius, a globe-trotting young playboy — and then the novel shimmers and shifts direction, slipping into a classical past where the historical references of the early sections become vivid reality.
We sail with Pericles, prince of Tyre; through feasts and famines, plagues and mutinies, the stories — and after-stories — of his lost wife and child unroll. We also dip into Jacobean London, in a fantastical riff on the death of Pericles’s co-writer George Wilkins, a brutal pimp whose corpse is gleefully urinated on by the women he’s abused.
This is not a book, then, that aims for the coherence of a conventional novel. The appropriately classical motif of weaving runs throughout, and the stitches at the back of the tapestry are on show. The Porpoise often hints at its own construction, with characters intuiting a significance to events that is just beyond their reach. The different worlds sometimes jut into each other as the narrative dances on the threshold between reality and imagination. Lonely, myth-obsessed Angelica “is both teller and listener. She forgets, sometimes, where the page ends and her mind begins.” A Chinese landscape painting, which the artist vanished into after its completion, takes on a talismanic power.
But the extraordinary force and vividness of Haddon’s prose ensure that The Porpoise reads not as a metatextual game but as a continually unfolding demonstration of the transporting power of stories. Blunt, short sentences brimming with nouns — food, spices, weapons — propel the reader through a landscape vaguely familiar from legend but here brought into crisp focus. The narrative combines chilly omniscience — we are often informed of deaths to come — with an insistence on the limits and vulnerabilities of its human actors, and a second-by-second attention to fleeting detail. This is language that knows how to do things: sail a ship, make a gold buckle, negotiate the tides of the Thames.
It’s a stunningly effective combination of the quotidian and the mythic that, as in “The Island” or “Wodwo”, pins impossibility to the page.
At the beginning of his journey, the heroic Pericles “does not understand yet that adventure is the easiest of all challenges”. Though it is, undeniably, a rollicking adventure story, like Haddon’s short stories The Porpoise is also about humanity stripped down to its starkest elements by forces beyond its comprehension and control; about damage and survival, and the balancing act between the two. Appropriately for a novel inspired by rape, if there is an image that links the various storylines, it is female resistance: a crowd of vengeful revenants in the George Wilkins section, Diana and her companions protecting Pericles’ daughter from a would-be assassin. Angelica only has the power of story to help her endure, but Haddon shows just how powerful that is.