You probably already know I’m a pretty big fan of weird fiction. But I did not know what I was getting into with Mark Haddon’s newest novel, The Porpoise. To be fair, I hadn’t read any of Haddon’s books before this one (no, I still haven’t read The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime), so that might be on me. Either way, The Porpoise was unexpectedly bizarre, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
(From Goodreads) Mark Haddon’s breathtaking novel begins with a harrowing plane crash: Maja, the pregnant wife of the unimaginably wealthy Philippe, is killed, but their daughter Angelica survives. Philippe’s obsession with the girl’s safety morphs into something sinister and grotesque as she grows into a beautiful teen. A young man named Darius, visiting Philippe with a business proposition, encounters Angelica and intuits their secret — he decides to rescue her, but the attempt goes awry and he flees England by sea.
This contemporary story mirrors the ancient legend of Antiochus, whose love for the daughter of his dead wife was discovered by the adventurer Appolinus of Tyre. The tale appeared in many forms through the ages; Apollinus becoming the swashbuckling Pericles in Shakespeare’s eponymous play. In The Porpoise, as Angelique comes to terms with a life imprisoned on her father’s estate, Darius morphs into Pericles, voyaging through a mythic world. In a bravura feat of storytelling, Haddon recounts his many exploits in thrilling fashion, mining the meaning of the old legends while creating parallels with the monstrous modern world Angelica inhabits. The language is rich and gorgeous; the conjured worlds are perfectly imagined; the plot moves forward at a ferocious pace.
But as much as Haddon plays with myth and meaning, his themes speak deeply to the current moment. As profound as it is entertaining, The Porpoise is a major literary achievement by an author whose myriad talents are on full, vivid display.
I don’t actually remember whether I knew going in that The Porpoise is a reimagining of Pericles by William Shakespeare (I read a lot of books, and even more synopses, so don’t expect me to remember all of them). Pericles is not my favorite play – check out my ranking of all of Shakespeare’s plays! – but I did enjoy what Mark Haddon did with it. Kind of…
This book started off really great. It’s not an easy book to read by any means. A lot of unpleasant things happen, and it’s definitely kind of difficult to get through. But it felt like the kind of family drama I occasionally like to read. And then it got weird. When a book parallels a classic or a legend, I don’t usually expect them to blend together so heavily. In this case, it was a bit confusing, and not in a good way. There are still a few storylines I’m not quite sure I totally grasped. The story splits in two about a third of the way through the book: the contemporary tale we start with, and its ancient Greek counterpart. And, per usual, there was one I liked better than the other (the modern story), and kept just wanting to get back to it. I had already grown so invested in that story, I had a hard time caring much about the other.
While I didn’t totally love the structure of this novel, I did really love the writing. It is the kind of writing that probably isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought it fit the story – the modern part of it, at least – perfectly. It was just simplistic enough to let the characters and plot shine through, but interesting enough to showcase some serious talent.
★★★☆☆ – If The Porpoise had continued in the vein of the first few chapters, I think it would have ended up being a five-star read for me. I really liked where that was going. But it didn’t. And while I wasn’t a fan of the structure of the second half of the novel, I did really enjoy the writing. If you like weird books that blend family drama with Greek myth and a little Shakespeare, this is definitely the book for you.
The Porpoise will be available in bookstores June 18. If you’re interested, you can order a copy on Amazon now.
To get the audiobook for free, use this link to sign up for a free trial of Audible and choose The Porpoise as one of your two free books.
This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
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