The title story of Mark Haddon’s collection The Pier Falls described a seaside catastrophe in documentary fashion, cataloguing its causes (“a rivet fails”), its nightmarish unfolding and its myriad costs in affectless yet mesmerising prose. What impressed was the way Haddon imbued what might have felt like a creative writing exercise with an appalled compassion. The Porpoise, a novel that draws on stories from the ancient world, medieval literature and Shakespeare and makes a wild scramble of them, opens in a similar way.
The Porpoise is a defiantly odd novel, dependent on the fine caul of Haddon’s prose to keep together the heavily spiced romantic mixture within. But it works. And, amazingly enough, it lives up to ancient Gower’s Latin tag. Haunted not just by its direct source but by Ovid and others, the novel exists in a world of old magic, of stories within stories, and webs of allusion that would crumble swiftly if mishandled, but which, here, weave their spell marvellously well.
Haddon teams the novel’s dreaminess with electrically lucid action: shipwrecks, nick-of-time escapes and combat scenes that would give Lee Child a run for his money. He can be grisly when he wants to but he’s no gore-monger, in one case achieving his effects by refraining from describing a pivotal fight, suddenly muting the volume. His present-tense narration confidently inhabits everything from a clogged artery to a lightning bolt. Characterisation is brisk and vivid... Line by line, Haddon throws everything at making it a transcendent, transporting experience – which is part of the point, given that The Porpoise turns on the consolations of storytelling, which aren’t just a cliche in a book that is essentially about a girl seeking to escape her ravaged body. A helix, a mirror ball, a literary box of tricks... take your pick: this is a full-spectrum pleasure, mixing metafictional razzmatazz with pulse-racing action and a prose style to die for. I’ll be staggered if it’s not spoken of whenever prizes are mentioned this year.
[Haddon's] most recent work, The Porpoise, containing, at its very heart, the notion of writing, or, more accurately: storytelling. The Porpoise is a much darker affair than his breakout work... The plot is slightly hokey, but the momentum is fast. Like many Shakespeare plays, this work begs to be read allegorically. It’s fun to theme-ize, categorize, etymologize. Motifs of wealth, madness, animal instinct and more permeate. Haddon writes clipped tense sentences, leads us to bizarre and beguiling places... Were Haddon a female writer, The Porpoise might have been marketed as a feminist retelling of Pericles. As it is, the tale is all the more complex and chilling for his broaching of this subject. He ventures into dangerous lands.
[The] first part is handled beautifully, the tension and horror of Philippe’s abuse set starkly against the comfort and security of their international milieu. Angelica becomes a kind of fairy tale princess, imprisoned by an ogre, growing up in isolation that only uber-wealth can afford... The sea is the strongest metaphor in the novel, surging and changing, providing life and death, and becoming an agent of the marvellous. Shakespeare’s late romances are all about those coincidences and supernatural effects which can seem, on stage and on the page, ridiculous. They do, however, indicate the agency of divine providence. In The Porpoise, Haddon gives voice to a character who, in Shakespeare, receives no more than a passing mention, and in doing so, shows the transcendent power of stories to heal and restore.
It’s a story with many juicy little tales embedded within it, but Haddon relies too much on foretelling to make it a cohesive whole: “It will take him fourteen years to realise that this is the most foolish thing he has ever done...” etc. Irritating after a while, and once the story strays into mythical territory the various narrative lines get rather tangled.
Yet so much of The Porpoise is beautifully written that you can put these qualms aside.
Haddon’s prose is beautiful, and he is utterly in command of his slippery material. Recurring motifs and emotional reverberations are neatly threaded through, while further tales from literature and myth prove a richly animating force. His novel is an elegant homage to stories’ capacity for endless renewal, and to the ways even the oldest still surge through our lives, from unhappy little girls who dream of being rescued by princes to the nameless significance we place in the chance sighting of a deer, as though it has stepped out of a fairy tale... Haddon leaves Angelica’s own ending precarious but, softened as we have been to the possibility of improbable events, it’s hard not to think that, in its very ambiguity, he is also allowing Antiochus’s raped and silenced daughter finally to step out of the darkness, into the light.
The Porpoise is a sinuous, baffling, time-jumping, narrative-hopping novel... The Porpoise is a novel built on many different versions of the story of Pericles. An oddity common to both this novel and the sources on which it draws is that the story of the vile father abusing his poor daughter, while appearing at first to be the heart of the tale, is merely a narrative springboard that launches the hero into a world of adventure... Haddon makes our rapprochement with the altered narrative harder by writing in a kind of classicalese, with rather more explaining than dramatising... If any readers do get lost, it’s a shame, because The Porpoise is lovely, sad, ambitious and admirable as well as challenging and, periodically, frustrating... How else, though, do we keep those myths alive? Every age retells, refocuses and interprets the classics. In The Porpoise Mark Haddon has done so in a way that makes us look afresh not only at the story of Pericles but also at storytelling itself.
Haddon is often hard on his characters, viewing them with a detached, almost clinical eye. Here, despite the historical setting, we never lose sight of them as people with rich inner lives. After the death of his friend Marlenus, Haddon writes, Pericles “will treat the hurt like a broken bone. He will hold it firm with a splint and he will adjust his behaviour so that it no longer has to bear any weight.” The novel is full of telling, cinematic detail too: when Pericles arrives in a town he once saved after a horrific journey by sea “the trumpets go silent one by one until an exuberant young man blowing joyously with closed eyes has to be cuffed about the head”... There’s plenty of foreshadowing in The Porpoise, though this might be because Haddon expects us to be familiar with the story. But what he really seems interested in is giving the bare bones of the play a kind of emotional and psychological plausibility that is alien to Gower, and even to Shakespeare. In doing so he has written a gripping novel that, despite its rollicking plot, never feels relentless, and is often very affecting indeed.