Mark Haddon has written a terrifically exciting novel called “The Porpoise.”
Could we just stop there?
Almost anything else I say about this book risks scattering readers like startled birds. Indeed, if Haddon weren’t the author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” I would have darted away from his new book, too.
The plot is based on a Greek legend, but not a sexy one like Madeline Miller’s “Circe” was. No, “The Porpoise” reaches back to the story of Apollonius, who exposes a king’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter. When the king moves to silence him, Apollonius flees and endures a string of harrowing exploits and far-fetched coincidences. That moldy tale served as the outline for several versions during the Middle Ages and then a chaotic Jacobean play called “Pericles,” which was probably written by Shakespeare and a London pimp named George Wilkins.
Still with me? Just wait . . .
To make “The Porpoise” even more challenging, Haddon twists modern and ancient renditions of the Apollonius story around each other so that we’re constantly shifting between them. And for good measure, he mixes in ghostly scenes of the late Will Shakespeare leading the newly dead George Wilkins to the great beyond.
The whole thing would be a postmodern mess if it weren’t for Haddon’s astounding skill as a storyteller. “The Porpoise” is so riveting that I found myself constantly pining to fall back into its labyrinth of swashbuckling adventure and feminist resistance.
The story opens with a terrifying plane crash that leaves a wealthy man named Philippe alone to raise his infant daughter, Angelica. Corrupted by grief and hubris, Philippe eventually starts sexually abusing Angelica in the confines of their hermetically sealed mansion. In this haunting reimagining of the old tragedy, Haddon provides a blistering critique of the way money distorts the moral atmosphere, choking off dissent and rendering dazzled outsiders incapable of seeing what’s happening.
When a young art dealer guesses Philippe’s ghastly secret, the story grows even hotter with peril. In the most magical way, the narrative seems to melt, transforming this modern-day crime into the ancient tale of Pericles. One moment the art dealer is speeding away on a yacht, and then, suddenly, “something is very wrong.” The narrator notes: “There are whole towns missing along the coast. . . . The sails are different. The sails are huge, and square, and there are way too many of them. The deck shifts unexpectedly. Not moves as such but . . . expands.” Even as the art dealer passes out, his mind is flooded with someone else’s memories.
We’re used to such molten transitions in film, but seeing one take place so flawlessly on the page feels like sorcery. We have sailed through a mystical membrane between present and past and been deposited in the ancient world of Pericles in medias res. “He was a man who could withstand any physical pain,” the narrator writes, “face any danger, take rational decisions in situations where lesser men would crumble.” In Haddon’s telling, this peripatetic prince is Odysseus, Robin Hood and MacGyver rolled into one tower of awesomeness — a humble, troubled superhero whom every heartthrob in Hollywood should be lining up to play.
To thwart a mysterious assassin, Pericles sails the high seas on his ship, the Porpoise, and still has time to save a beleaguered city and win the heart of a headstrong woman who goes on to face her own excruciating challenges. But he never feels more alive than when he’s under attack. Lethal with his bare hands, he’s even more deadly when armed. “He has entered his element,” Haddon writes. “He is a falcon unhooded and off the glove. He is pure body.” Diving into the water just out of reach of some killer’s sword, “he could whoop for joy had he breath to spare,” which is exactly how I felt reading these pulse-pounding scenes.
The way Haddon has streamlined this ramshackle tale into a sleek voyage of gripping tribulation is fantastic. But what’s especially remarkable is that the modern-day scenes interwoven with Pericles’ ancient adventures feel no less electrifying. The contemporary events have been polished to an antique patina and endowed with classical weight. While the prince is twisting away from murderers and surviving ship-crushing storms, young Angelica remains stock still in her father’s mansion. Barred from fight or flight, she has nonetheless devised a method of defying her father’s sexual assaults — a method as ingenious as it is self-destructive. In scenes of frozen agony, Haddon explores the insidious ways that class silences suspicion and camouflages Philippe’s abuse, requiring his daughter to exercise power in the only way left to her.
Despite all the testosterone-fueled adventure in “The Porpoise,” the various ways women endure and resist gradually become the novel’s focus. While Pericles’ derring-do glistens with fantasy, his wife’s efforts to stay alive are more subtle and dextrous. And the novel’s final moment provides a brilliant blending of realism and mythology, a poignant acknowledgment of the limits of female power — and its boundless potential.
Please don’t let the obscure source material of “The Porpoise” scare you away. I promise its intimidating tangle of backstories will yield to your interest, and its structural complications will cohere in your imagination. The result is a novel just as thrilling as it is thoughtful.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Mark Haddon
Doubleday. 320 pp. $27.95