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The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

Published by Doubleday on June 18, 2019

It would be difficult for a novel to be more determinedly literary than The Porpoise. Fortunately, the novel manages to be literary without becoming pretentious. Much of the plot tracks Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a play based on the Greek legend of Apollonius of Tyre. The play was at least partially written by Shakespeare (royalty goes mad, so you know it’s Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s ghost appears as a character in The Porpoise, as does the tormented ghost of the play’s likely co-creator, George Wilkins.

Before it morphs into a story of the ancient world (and a lesser story about the ghosts of the creators of that story), the plot echoes Nabokov’s Lolita. Unlike Lolita, however, the young protagonist in The Porpoise is not a seductress, but a victim. The victimization of women and the possibility of empowerment through struggle is, in fact, the thread that ties the storylines together.

The most vital characters in both stories are women. In the modern world, Angelica is cut from the womb of an actress who dies in a plane crash. The actress’ wealthy husband grieves his loss but views his daughter as a marvel. Philippe is tormented by the fear that in his own despair, he will be unable to make his daughter happy.

This seems like the opening to a sweet but melancholy story. Not long into the narrative, however, Philippe becomes creepy. “When does Philippe’s touching turn from innocence into something more sinister?” That sentence telegraphs what is to come.

But Philippe is wealthy and he cannot imagine that there will be any consequence for behavior that he considers to be his right. As she grows into her teen years, Angelica knows that “the law bends before wealth.” The ability of the wealthy (or royalty, in the Pericles story) to live without fear of consequences is one of the novel’s timely themes.

The notion that the wealthy are different (or believe themselves to be) is played out in different ways. One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when Pericles, who has always believed in his ability to shape his own destiny, realizes that he was deluded by the advantages that accompanied his position. When an uncontrollable tragedy strikes his life, he comes to “finally understand that what he thought was weakness in others is not weakness at all; it is simply the structure of the world.” His wife, after an equal tragedy, has a similar epiphany: “Everyone inhabits a different world.” Perhaps the novel and play reveal that we all inclined to live inside our own heads, and that it may require a tragic event to make us recognize how much we have in common with others who are less fortunate.

Given Philippe’s wealth and power, the only person who tries to help Angelica is a young man named Darius. He pays a price for trying. The story diverts from Angelica’s plight to follow Darius as he hitches a ride on a restored yacht called The Porpoise that is being delivered by his friend Helena. Somehow Darius finds himself transformed into Pericles, the Prince of Tyre. In the Shakespeare/Wilkins play, Antiochus is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his daughter — the bridge that connects the two stories.

Pericles is being pursued by an assassin who wants to keep Pericles from spreading the truth about Antiochus (a circumstance similar to one that Darius briefly occupies). Pericles eventually takes a wife who apparently dies while giving birth to Marina. In his grief, Pericles seems to lose touch with his sanity. But the wife is not dead. After being sealed in a coffin and dumped into the sea, she has survival adventures of her own. She uses her wits to adapt and make a new life.

Late in the book, Marina makes her own difficult journey, gaining strength through adversity while becoming disgusted with a pampered friend’s “need for comfort and luxury, her desire to be liked, her affected weakness.” Events in the novel suggest that she has embodied the spirit of the goddess Diana, the deadly hunter, master of woodland creatures and protector of women giving birth.

Female empowerment (and its resistance by males) is the novel’s primary theme. Pericles wonders how, after his father’s death and in his absence, his sisters could possibly rule a city. A man who intends to kill a female child is frightened by the power of women when he encounters Diana (“The world turned upside down; the weak given power.”). Wilkins is haunted in death by all the women he abused during his life (“to discover that the sex too weak to have dominion in the physical world are possessed of demonic powers in the other is hard to bear”).

While male characters disparage the weakness of women (and in turn are frightened by their strength), it is women to whom they turn when they need care. Pericles’ wife, in her reborn life, is tired of caring for men: “she is tired of being the first port of call.” She is also tired of feeling threatened by men. She knows that the ability to read and write is not enough to make her safe. Yet at the end of the novel, she cannot turn away an injured man in need, a man she does not yet recognize, because the most damaged of men still have a soul.

The story depends heavily on coincidence, but coincidence in a Shakespeare play is usually evidence of fate. While the ending of the Pericles story is untold, events that shape the ending a reader might imagine are rooted in fate. The ending of the modern story, which ties the goddess Dianne to Angelica, might also be ascribed to fate. The ending is a surprise, but perhaps believers in fate won’t find it surprising at all.

Oddly, I started out liking the modern story more than the ancient one, in part because the shift to Pericles is jarring. By the end, I was quite taken with the ancient story and thought that the drama was milked out of the modern one. Angelica’s story is sad but a bit forced, while the reimagining of Pericles is fascinating. Both stories are nevertheless told in lush prose and the interwoven plots have all the excitement, tragedy, and insight that fans of literature love.


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