Recommended Read: The Porpoise

Each month, Muskeg Press will review one of our favourite books that we have on our bookshelf.
We hope these reviews reinforce a love of literature for our readers, or perhaps give you some ideas for the next book on your list to read.

porpoise book


The Porpoise

A novel by Mark Haddon

Bond Street Books, 2019; 308 pages

Stories, we’re told, help us make sense of the world: this crazy, messy, mad, mad, mad world. But when the world is really messy, and the reality is gouge-your-eyes-out terrible, how do you make sense of that?

There’s this one story, perhaps you’ve heard it, of a man named Apollonius from the ancient city of Tyre. An adventurous soul, he travels to Antioch, another ancient city in present-day Turkey, seeking the hand of a princess. Her father, King Antiochus, will only allow her to marry someone who answers a riddle, but if the suitor answers wrong, he is put to death. The stage is set for Apollonius to match wits with Antiochus, and the dramatic tension tightens.

So far, so good, right? Sounds like a basic storyline with the requisite dramatic devices that we might see in something from Shakespeare, or even Disney. But the twist is in the background to the riddle: the King fell in love with his daughter and repeatedly raped her, and in his possessiveness, he used the impossible riddle as a method to kill any suitor who might be interested in her; anyone who would take her away from his repugnant appetites had to be punished. Even when the wily Apollonius does guess the answer, which also reveals the King’s incestuous relationship with his daughter, Antiochus, enraged and vengeful, sends his goons to Tyre to try and kill Apollonius. This King, in other words, is really not a nice dude.

Since its origins in the sixth century, the story has been re-told many times with many different versions. But the authorship is debated and diffuse, and even when it's re-told, there is a mystery around the source of the story. Somewhere along the way, Apollonius’ name changed to Pericles, and he became the hero in one of Shakespeare’s plays, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. But hang on. The authorship of that play is fuzzy, and most Shakespearean scholars agree that only a few scenes were written by the Bard, the majority of the content being provided by George Wilkins, the owner of a house of ill repute who beat the women in his employ, and lived in London around the same time as Shakespeare. This Wilkins, in other words, was really not a nice dude.

All of these characters – Apollonius, Pericles, Shakespeare, Wilkins – make appearances in Mark Haddon’s most recent novel, The Porpoise. But the main character is Angelica, the daughter of a modern-day hyper-rich Frenchman, Philippe. Angelica was born from fire and ashes: the novel begins with a harrowing and lyrical account of a plane crash that kills Maja, Philippe’s beautiful actress wife, and, as life drains from her body, Angelica is saved from death, ripped from her
mother’s dying womb. In grief, Philippe holes himself up in his sprawling estate in England, and lives only for his daughter. Eventually, he falls in love with her, and in his possessiveness becomes a modern-day Antiochus. The help at the house turn a blind eye, and a young suitor tries making a rescue, only to be chased away by one of Philippe’s fixers.

This Philippe, in other words, is really not a nice dude. His riches protect him, and he possessively holds on tight to his daughter in the worst way imaginable. But the world is rotten too; after all, there’s an entire apparatus of servants and go-betweens and nannies and maids and enablers who allow the sweet Angelica to be cooped up and abused.

So, I ask again: how do you make sense of that? Well, maybe you don’t. Maybe you tell yourself stories to keep yourself sane, cast villains just so they can be brought to justice by heroes. Stories, then, console us, they soothe us, they give us shelter and sanctuary from the mad, mad, mad world. And Angelica does just that, telling stories, transforming her young suitor and sending him back in time so he actually becomes Pericles, marries a beautiful princess named Chloe, and then loses her after she goes into a coma after giving birth to his daughter on a ship at sea. Thinking she is dead, he casts her overboard in a sealed coffin, then abandons his kingdom and his daughter, Marina. He spends most of his life aimlessly wandering until he realizes his purpose was within his grasp all along, and begins a quest to find his daughter.

Haddon, who is most famous for writing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a writer that can move the narrative forward quickly, then pull it back for moments of reflection, before sending you full-throttle into another adventure. The drama is amped up because his story is written in the present tense, which gives the events that happened thousands of years ago a sense of urgency. Myself, I read it quickly before I realized that, even though Pericles is the supposed hero, it’s actually his wife Chloe and his daughter Marina – and, by extension, Angelica – who are the real stars. They’re tough, they’ve lived through a lot, they can take care of themselves, they deal with things and move forward. This message is underscored without sentimentality once the goddess Diana and her Amazonians appear on a forest path when Marina is in trouble. 

But even the strong and the tough can be abused, encaged, enslaved. We witnessed that recently with the trial of Harvey Weinstein, and all the subsequent fallout from those allegations that fed even more allegations. As Haddon shows, this isn’t a new story: it comes from antiquity, when the hero’s name was Apollonius, and it weaves its way through Shakespeare, who for some reason collaborated with a misogynist pimp. 

But Haddon’s story, just like the original –  and just like the authorship in Shakespeare’s play – is slippery. The source of it all is blurred, and when reading the story, I was left of this sense that I couldn’t grasp at the narrative as it was passing by me, like I was dipping my hand in a stream and trying to catch the millions of droplets of water that flow past every second. It’s horrible, yet we look away. Have we been doing this since the sixth century? Is the story based on a real King Antioch, a horrible man who everyone knew was behaving badly, but did nothing to stop it? And, perhaps, the original author stayed anonymous to protect himself from a tyrant, or because he didn’t want anything to do with the story once he told it? Justice in the world is rare, and if it comes, it comes too late. Try and make sense of that.

~Chris Armstrong

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