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.
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