Chatto & Windus
Rating: 5 stars
Mark Haddon is most famous for his remarkable novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, published in 2003 as, unusually, both children’s and adult fiction, and subsequently adapted into an award-winning play at the National Theatre. It won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award – in the Novels rather than the Children’s Books category – and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, as The Curious Incident was considered his first written for adults; yet Haddon also won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime award judged by a panel of children’s writers. The book was also long-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize.
Since then, Haddon has published two more novels and a beautiful collection of short stories, The Pier Falls. And 2019 sees another departure for Haddon in his new novel, The Porpoise, a compelling blending of modern novel with legends, myths, and ancient history. The different strands intertwine in a vivid and electrifying tale, combining episodes of action, from shipwrecks and fierce combat scenes, to daring escapes and shape-shifting moments. His story-telling makes great use of present tense, which sends sparks throughout the whole novel. It’s impossible to define The Porpoise – the plot is based on the Greek legend of Apollonius, who exposes a king’s incestuous relationship with his daughter; fleeing the king’s wrath, Apollonius endures many harrowing exploits. (This legend is the basis for the play Pericles, thought to be written by Shakespeare and one George Wilkins, and it’s a measure of The Porpoise’s extraordinary compass that this pair of Jacobean writers form a sequence of rich scenes.)
“Something peculiar is happening here,” someone thinks. “Time is repeating and rhyming…”
In the opening section, wealthy Philippe is widowed by a horrific plane crash in which his new daughter Angelique is the sole survivor. As Angelique grows up, Philippe keeps her isolated from the world and eventually starts sexually abusing her. Haddon shines a light on the way money distorts the moral atmosphere, and cuts off dissent, making it impossible for outsiders to accept the truth of what is happening, let alone intervene. Philippe’s power over Angelique is complete and she has no one to help her and no way of escaping the web in which she is entrapped. The modern scenes are entwined and interwoven with the ancient tales of Pericles/Apollonius in a way I found gripping and at times shocking. I wanted to read on quickly, but the language was so sparing and beautiful that I had to linger over it.
A remarkable book. Please don’t be put off by mentions of ancient and obscure source material: this is a rich masterpiece of a novel, well worthy of many prizes and of reading and rereading.
Reviewed by Daisy