All of Mark Haddon’s fiction for adults has, until now, been rooted in contemporary realism: emotionally intelligent, yet possessed of a light touch and a sweetly British sense of the absurd. You could argue that his best-known novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a work of deep imagination; the book, though meticulously realistic, is told from the point of view of a teenager with Savantism. But with his new novel, The Porpoise, Haddon goes deeper still. This time he gives us the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, priestesses and pirates, carnelian and amber. It’s a different kind of storytelling, rich as brocade and powerful indeed.
The Porpoise opens on a present-day setting, though it has a quality of strangeness that, rendered in the author’s somewhat formal language, feels timeless. An extraordinarily rich man named Philippe is married to an actress named Maja, the only person he has ever loved. While very pregnant, Maja takes what should be a short flight in a light aircraft, but the pilot foolishly flies into thick clouds and crashes, killing them both. The baby, a girl Philippe names Angelica, is delivered and lives.
Grief and a monstrous sense of ownership warp Philippe’s mind, and he half believes that Maja lives on in the girl, who he begins molesting when she is small and rapes when she enters adolescence. To keep the nature of their relationship secret, he takes Angelica out of school and moves them around the world. He owns homes in Sri Lanka, Berlin, and Skiathos; he can do what he wants.
The experience of reading Angelica’s story is swiftly engrossing, heady, disorienting—a tumble down a churning whitewater. Her life is a prison, and she feels implicated in her father’s sick need for her. Angelica reads copiously, the escapism of a lonely child desperate to climb out of her circumstance and away from her thoughts. She’s not interested in books other kids her age might read; instead, she plunges into the worlds of myth and legend. As if preparing us for what’s to come, the narrator says:
Her favorite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.
When Haddon’s novel—the book we’re reading—takes us on a similar journey, should we be surprised?
The most distressing parts of the story come out in a rush. A handsome young man comes to the house. The son of a recently deceased art dealer with whom Philippe worked, Darius feels compelled to visit Philippe—not only for business, but because he’s heard about the man’s unusual, beautiful daughter. When he meets the girl and they lock eyes, it takes him only moments to understand that something is very wrong. He tries to rescue her, is nearly killed by Philippe, escapes to the coast, and ends up on a schooner belonging to an old friend who he bumps into by chance. It’s a trippy coincidence that feels just this side of unlikely, even for a rich kid who’s used to things going his way. And sure enough, after Darius sleeps off his injuries, he wakes in a fug of confusion—on a different ship, an unfamiliar one with huge sails. His head swims, full of memories that aren’t his own. He’s still dashing, still hungry for adventure, but he’s become someone else: Pericles, the prince of Tyre, out to sea on his own ship, the Porpoise.
Once we get our sea legs we understand that the novel has become—in fact already was—a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the story of a young prince who discovered that the King of Antioch was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter and was forced to flee. (The play was itself a retelling of Apollonius of Tyre, a story that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and for centuries before that.)
That’s the thing about legends, ask any scholar of the classics: They get told and retold and will always reflect the attitudes of the place and time of the teller. Haddon makes these characters resonate simply by giving them a “realness” that readers of contemporary fiction crave. They may have old-fashioned names, but they’re bristling with life. When Pericles meets the Queen of Tarsus and she “stands just a little closer to him than is proper, just inside an invisible orbit of which he has never been aware before,” we readers feel the electricity between them. Sex and attraction feature prominently throughout the story, as do birth and death, terror and violence—all the elemental stuff of life that hasn’t changed one bit over the eons—and the drama feels ageless because it is.
The novel’s only obviously contemporary note is Haddon’s insistence that a female perspective shine through the stories, even—or especially—the ones that depict male cruelty toward women. One character, Chloë, is a princess who dies at sea but is pulled ashore and comes back to life, later becoming a priestess who gives the local people advice and guidance. When discussing women’s lot in life, she’s a straight shooter: “Girls have secrets…And there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life.” Does the weight of her words come down like a hammer because Haddon is unsubtle in giving the myth a twist of modern feminism? Or is it because they’re that weighty and timeless and true? It’s stirring either way. And frankly, sometimes subtle just isn’t the way to go.
Likewise, in one of the book’s most haunting passages, Haddon floats a theory for Philippe’s abuse of his daughter.
Does he know, in some corner of his mind, that what he is doing is wrong? Or, if you have never been forbidden absolutely, if you have never been harshly criticized by someone whose opinion genuinely matters to you, if you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of the mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?
Well shit, the author seems to say. Here we (still) are.
In a brief author’s note, Haddon—who is stunningly sensitive to not only the plight but also the interiority of all his female characters—writes that there is only one version of the Pericles story, a Breton lai written in the early 14th century, in which the princess is the hero, so to speak. Rather than serving as a plot “instigating device,” he says, she is the one at the center of the story who travels around and has “adventures.” I like the way the word adventure is used throughout this novel: It serves as a stout reminder that true adventure is dangerous and experience hard-earned.
Ultimately, the purpose of this beautiful novel is to remind us—to prove to us—that emotional truths are ageless and universal, the bedrock on which our supposedly real lives are built. The thing is, a retelling of an old story is in some ways just an update, a variation on a theme. But when it’s done very well, it’s more like a translation. The meaning of the strange symbols, which can be hard to parse across centuries and cultures, becomes plain. Maybe a woman whose coffin is fished from the ocean can’t come back to life and morph into something new. But perhaps a woman who has experienced a great trauma can walk away from it, change her circumstances in order to survive, and thereby be reborn—first in her mind and then in reality.