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The Porpoise by Mark Haddon @mark_haddon @ChattoBooks

June 12, 2019

Source: Review copy
Publication: 9th May 2019 from Chatto and Windus
PP: 336
ISBN-13: 978-1784742829

A newborn baby is the sole survivor of a terrifying plane crash. She is raised in wealthy isolation by an overprotective father. She knows nothing of the rumours about a beautiful young woman, hidden from the world.

When a suitor visits, he understands far more than he should. Forced to run for his life, he escapes aboard The Porpoise, an assassin on his tail… So begins a wild adventure of a novel, damp with salt spray, blood and tears.

A novel that leaps from the modern era to ancient times; a novel that soars, and sails, and burns long and bright; a novel that almost drowns in grief yet swims ashore.

Pirates rampage, a princess wins a wrestler’s hand, and ghost women with lampreys’ teeth drag a man to hell – and in which the members of a shattered family, adrift in a violent world, journey towards a place called home.

And his wondrous new novel, a violent, all-action thrill ride shuttling between antiquity and the present, is another step in a transformation as surprising as any in the book itself.

There’s an animation – I wish I can remember where it comes from – where a man transforms in to a fish, then a bird, then a tiger, then a man again. Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise reminds me of that animation a lot.  No sooner are you getting comfortable with his story trajectory than all dissolves around you and you are in a different terrain, watching different parts being played out. Different, but allegorically the same.

Philippe is a mega-rich, has-it-all banker married to the beautiful Maja, a Swedish actor who dies while heavily pregnant in a plane crash that leaves no survivors apart from their newly delivered child, whom Philippe names Angelica.  Philippe raises Angelica in isolation, soon denying her the comfort or consort of other children; alone save for a nanny and the household staff. For Philippe, used to getting what he wants is now so fixated on his daughter that he is abusing her and though the servants suspect, they say nothing. Angelica knows no different; she knows she doesn’t like what her father wants, but he loves her and it has always been this way. She retreats into fiction while, like Sleeping Beauty, she awaits her rescuer.

Then one day Darius, the son of his recently deceased art dealer comes by with a cartoon Philippe has been seeking to add to his collection. Darius just wants to make a quick financial killing  but is immediately drawn by Angelica. Philippe sees the mutual attraction and in a fit of jealous rage, murders him.

This is where it all goes strange. For Darius has now morphed into Pericles, at least in Angelica’s dreamlike state; not dead but fleeing.

Shakespeare’s Pericles begins in the court of Antiochus, king of Antioch, who has offered the hand of his beautiful unnamed daughter,  to any man who answers his riddle; but those who fail shall die. I am no viper, yet I feed On mother’s flesh which did me breed. I sought a husband, in which labour I found that kindness in a father: He’s father, son, and husband mild; I mother, wife, and yet his child. How they may be, and yet in two, As you will live, resolve it you.

Pericles, the young Prince of Tyre in Phoenicia hears the riddle, and instantly understands its meaning: Antiochus is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. If he reveals this truth, he will be killed, but if he answers incorrectly, he will also be killed. Pericles hints that he knows the answer, and asks for more time to think. Antiochus grants him forty days, and then sends an assassin after him.

Darius /Pericles is now on the Porpoise, a great wooden battleship, sailing across the Aegean, fleeing from his assassin. We watch as he falls in love, shows off his fighting skills in wrestling bouts and the winning battles, deals with world defining natural disasters, has a family, loses them and is then reunited with them.

Now it becomes clearer. This is Angelica’s dream; this is what she has taken from her stories. For Angelica’s world turned when Philippe murdered Darius. She could no longer acquiesce to his horrifying behaviour. Instead she has withdrawn from the contemporary world and after self-harming is now starving herself.  The stories we are reading are the stories in this poor abused girl’s head.

The Porpoise is not an easy read and it does help enormously if you know Pericles the play (which I do, at least a bit) and the work of George Wilkins (which I don’t at all).

The writing is dazzling and confident; full of richness and great escapades, everything good storytelling should be. Underneath it all, though, is a perceptive consideration of the absence of women’s voices, of the words men use to avoid calling out rape for what it is.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of this book. I know the writing is exceptional, I can follow most if not all of the train of thought and I can see the parallels between Philippe and Antiochus, Darius and Pericles.

Angelica’s rebellion and resistence against her father’s vile behaviour is incredibly powerful. That glimpse of another life was enough for her to start hoping and to begin hating her father. Her silent starvation her only truly effective weapon of resistance.  

As we follow Darius’ exploits, woven into a massively colourful and magical tale, even as Angelica’s body fails her, her mind is working on a multiplicity of technicolour threads, we understand the stark reality of such heinous cruelty as Philippe has perpetrated in stark black and white relief.

Haddon’s novel is ultimately affirming of the power of women and the way we are fighting back, but one can’t help but wonder what the cost is when considering Angelica’s own fight back.

Verdict: Beautifully written, cleverly done and very thought provoking but complex novel.

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Mark Haddon was born in Northampton in 1962. He graduated from Oxford University in 1981, returning later to study for an M.Sc. in English Literature at Edinburgh University. He then undertook a variety of jobs, including work with children and adults with mental and physical disabilities.  He also worked as an illustrator for magazines and a cartoonist for New Statesman, The Spectator, Private Eye, the Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian (for which he co-wrote a cartoon strip).

In 2003 his novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was published and has been hugely successful.  It is the first book to have been published simultaneously in two imprints – one for children and one for adults. It has won a string of prestigious awards, including the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year. His second novel, A Spot of Bother, was published in 2006 and shortlisted for the 2006 Costa Novel Award.
His first book of poetry, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, was published in 2005. His latest books include the novels Boom! (2009), The Red House (2012) and The Pier Falls (2016).

From → Literary Fiction

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