Review: The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

A few authors lately have been dipping into the ancient classics for inspiration (Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Madeline Miller’s Circe and earlier Song of Achilles). Now we have The Porpoise, which is a reimagining of the story of Apollonius of Tyre, which inspired Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. All these newbies are brilliant novels, full of tragedy, adventure, passion and twists of fate.

With Apollonius/Pericles, a young prince must lead the life of a fugitive when he discovers the incestuous relationship between a king (Antiochus) and his daughter. Lots of adventure follows, with storms at sea, shipwrecks, plagues, mutinies, and amid all that, our hero marries a princess and gains a daughter, only to lose them both. The evil king gets his comeuppance, and fortune, whether driven by divine intervention or luck, eventually shines on Pericles and he is reunited with his family.

The trick with these stories is to make them accessible to the modern reader. Haddon does this by starting us off in modern times and using a lively present tense narration. Philippe is overcome with grief when his wife dies in a plane crash, his daughter Angelica born moments later. He becomes obsessed with Angelica and as she matures he keeps her isolated, tutored at home, sequestered in his English mansion, Antioch.

Enter Darius, the son of an art dealer. Seeing his chance to make some easy money, Darius drives to Antioch hoping to interest Philippe in some collectibles he’d shown interest in. Here he meets Angelica whom he decides needs rescuing. Darius is set upon by Philippe’s thug, just getting away when chance hands him help in the form of a friend with a yacht. Darius and crew sail away from danger, but also into the past where Darius becomes Pericles and the adventures really begin.

Woven through the narrative are updates with the modern-day Angelica/Philippe situation as well as glimpses of Shakespeare and his fellow Pericles author, George Wilkins, whose main source of income was running prostitutes. Women are frequently badly treated in the book, pawns in the ambitions of powerful men, but the gods take note and justice prevails. There are strong female characters too: Helena, the captain of the Porpoise which rescues Darius; Chloe, Pericles’s wife is feisty and headstrong, Marina, their daughter, a determined survivor – to name but three.

Pericles has all the hallmarks of a hero – both the son of a king, as well as an adventurer who can fight and live off his wits. He makes mistakes and pays the price, being brought down to a life of hardship and near death more than once before fortune can shine upon him again. All of this really puts the reader through the mill with plenty of ‘Oh, no!’ moments.

The Porpoise might have been a plot-driven adventure story, and at that there is plenty to keep you turning the pages, but Haddon’s prose is lyrical and elegant. He creates wonderful visual pictures that make you feel you are there on the ship at Pericles’s side, on the barge that will take Wilkins to hell, in ancient palace gardens, or sequestered temples. There’s plenty to mull over plus a few literary references you might want to look up from time to time. Which all adds to the richness of the read. I loved it – five out of five from me.

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