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Set sail with ‘The Porpoise’

July 9, 2019
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There are those who say that there are only so many stories, that the myriad tales we tell are all variations on just a few themes. Even so, there is something truly remarkable that can happen when a writer takes it upon themselves to reinterpret or reimagine an already-extant story.

Mark Haddon has done just that with his new novel “The Porpoise” (Doubleday, $27.95). It’s a weird and fantastical take on William Shakespeare’s “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” itself a story that was a reimagination of a tale that came before. It’s a strange and at times unsettling adventure, one that bounces back and forth through time and operates on multiple, metatextual levels.

It is a story about history, about how truth morphs into myth and how the stories we tell can bleed into the world in which we live. It’s about the agency of women and the ugliness of men, about the consequences of our choices and the meaning of love. There are stretches of swashbuckling derring-do and moments of quiet introspection. It is a tale that shows that isn’t always much difference between the past and the present.

Phillippe is an immensely wealthy man, a 1% of the 1% kind of rich. He is married to a beautiful actress named Maja who is pregnant with his first child, a daughter. A tragic plane crash takes her away from him, though the child survives. He names her Angelique and grows fiercely protective to the point of paranoia … and his love for the child soon becomes something twisted and dark.

As Angelique grows into her teenage years, she begins to suspect that something is wrong with the relationship between herself and her father. And when Darius, the handsome son of one of Phillippe’s associates, turns up at the house, she realizes that she wants something more than can be found within the confines of those four walls.

The story is a reflection of that of Antiochus, a legendary figure whose own dark love is revealed when he crosses paths with the adventurer Appolinus, who would go on to serve as the inspiration for Pericles, Shakespeare’s titular hero.

(Note: Shakespeare actually shows up at one point in the story to take part in a particularly weird scene. No spoilers, but man – strange stuff.)

Darius becomes Pericles, the line between reality and myth blurring to the point of indistinction. We follow Pericles through his many adventures, through his loves and losses and desperate battles for survival. His voyages sit in parallel with the silent desperation of Angelique, struggling to come to terms with the fact that what she considered a home might actually be a prison – in more ways than one.

“The Porpoise” is a deft and beautifully written piece, one that uses its inspiration as a springboard to dive into waters that are deep both narratively and intellectually. There’s a starkness to the story that is juxtaposed by the lushness of the prose; even at the tale’s bleakest, the language is captivating and compelling.

As a lover of Shakespeare (and of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of Bard adaptations, into whose midst “The Porpoise” would seamlessly slide, by the way), I’m forever fascinated by these sorts of adaptations. The universality of the stories being told is inescapable in its resonance. Even if there are only so many stories, Shakespeare put his mark on a lot of them … and now Mark Haddon has put his mark on Shakespeare.

Some might struggle with the darkness, both overt and subtle, that bubbles to the surface throughout this book. And there’s no denying that the story gets challengingly bleak at points. However, that unsettling quality, that sense of the sinister, the shadowy evil dressed in deluded trappings of love – it is gut-punch powerful in a way that lodges itself in the memory.

Haddon is unafraid to explore complicated themes in his work; his grasp of the human condition’s complexity is one of his greatest gifts as a writer. He reimagines a legend, a mythic figure whose tale has gone through multiple iterations over the course of centuries, and uses it to reflect on some of the more unpleasant realities of the modern world. By moving back and forth between now and then, between the stark truth of the present and the mythic mists of antiquity, he brings forth truth.

The human soul is a prism through which love can shine. But when that soul is cracked or broken, so too are the feelings that are projected through it. Love is something to which all mankind aspires, but there are variations that are not so welcome. What Haddon does with “The Porpoise” is confront us with that variance; some love is pure, yes, but some love … some love is anything but.

“The Porpoise” is a striking and visceral reading experience, an ambitious work that places perspective on our passions and dives deep into the power of myth. Who we are shapes how we love … or even if we can love. Weird and twisting and packed with marvelous detail and unsettling power, this is a truly challenging – and truly exceptional – book.

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