Book review: The Porpoise, by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is still, I suppose, best-known for his first novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won lots of prizes, among them the Whitbread, and became a worldwide bestseller. Such a success is often a burden for a writer, and may also of course prove a liberation, allowing him the freedom to experiment. It seems to have been the second for Haddon. With The Pier Falls, he ingeniously reworked two myths – Ariadne in Naxos and Gawain and the Green Knight – setting them in today’s world. Now, with The Porpoise, he plays a similar game with one of the most perplexing of Shakespeare’s works, Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

Mark Haddon PIC: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock
Mark Haddon PIC: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock
Mark Haddon PIC: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

One says Shakespeare, but for a long time, this play, described by his friend Ben Jonson as “mouldy,” was excluded from the canon. It’s now generally accepted that the first two acts were written by George Wilkins, inn-keeper and pimp, the last three by Shakespeare. Wilkins then published a novelisation of the play. The play is a mess, the plot erratic and improbable – though one might remark that TS Eliot found the ending “the finest of all the ‘recognition scenes’.” It has, however, become popular in the last half-century because it is ideally suited to “director’s theatre.” Nobody is likely to object much to any extravagant treatment of a text which is itself almost certainly corrupt.

One can see why it has attracted Haddon – Ali Smith too, for her latest novella Spring, also plays off it. Haddon’s novel begins with a fine opening chapter set in the present day. A light aeroplane crashes in northern France. The pilot and his nine year-old son are killed outright. The other passenger, Maja, a film-star, wife of a multi-millionaire, Philippe, is also killed, but in the moment of dying she gives birth to a premature baby daughter whom Philippe will call Angelica. Grieving for his dead wife, he withdraws from the world, though he is surrounded by servants in his country estate, Antioch, somewhere in the south of England, Antioch being also the city where the first act of Pericles is set.

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In the play the King poses a riddle. It is strangely easy to read, and the answer is that the King is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. So, as we already know, is Philippe who abuses Angelica from a very early age. For years she accepts this as natural. Then they are visited by a young man, Darius, son of Philippe’s recently dead picture-dealer. Sparks fly. Angelica awakes. Philippe is furious. Darius is lucky to escape with his life and a broken arm. He is pursued by Philippe’s sinister bodyguard. He finds refuge in a ship – The Porpoise - and heads for the Mediterranean.

What follows for some 300 pages is a wild adventure echoing parts at least of the Wilkins/Shakespeare play. It is full of splendid incident, some of it horrid, some delightful. It also aims to be a journey towards understanding and reconciliation – the great themes of late Shakespeare – though falling short of this ambition.

Stevenson distinguished between romance and drama in the novel, the former being “the poetry of circumstance,” the latter “the poetry of character.” Haddon’s novel is unquestionably a romance, and one that scarcely even pretends to be interested in character. The persons in the novel are little more than names; it would require suspension of all disbelief to care a jot for them. This won’t matter to many readers. In contemporary fiction, character is often utterly subservient to incident, and the gaudier the incident the better. Haddon does incident at its gaudiest and his prose is often exhilarating. The novel is charming. It is even smothered in charm. The harsh and brutal reality of the abuse which Angelica suffers, something which in the early chapters hinted at a dramatic development, becomes like much in the novel, mere decoration.

There is much to enjoy in this novel – the liveliness of Haddon’s imagination and the virtuosity of his style – and those who think of art only as entertainment will surely delight in it. More severe, even puritanical critics may judge that a novel in which the unfettered author can make anything happen is one where nothing that happens matters. - Allan Massie

The Porpoise, by Mark Haddon, Chatto & Windus, 309pp, £18.99