Adrenaline-fuelled adventure meets Shakespeare in a serious contender for novel of the year
Mark Haddon: ‘keen to shed his child-friendly reputation’. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
You suspect that whatever he writes, Mark Haddon will always be best known for his 2003 bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But there were strong signs in his 2016 collection The Pier Falls – in which he describes a fatal seaside disaster with an impassivity that is all but indistinguishable from relish– that he was keen to shed his child-friendly reputation. And his wondrous new novel, a violent, all-action thrill ride shuttling between antiquity and the present, is another step in a transformation as surprising as any in the book itself.
It starts with a shadowy, super-rich businessman, Philippe, mourning his wife, Maja, a Swedish actor who dies while heavily pregnant in a plane crash that leaves no survivors apart from their child, Angelica, delivered safely. As she grows up, raised in an isolated life of luxury, Philippe’s close circle of fixers suspect he’s abusing her, but do nothing, even when he murders his art dealer’s son, Darius, in a jealous rage after the younger man dares to catch her eye on a rare visit to their Hampshire hideaway.
The first 16 years of Angelica’s life pass in just 40 pages, and the pace doesn’t let up. Haddon’s epigraphs tip the wink that elements in this scenario echo the Greek legend of the young prince Apollonius (better known as Pericles, thanks to the Shakespeare play), who risks death after revealing a Syrian king’s incestuous relationship with his daughter.
His present-tense narration confidently inhabits everything from a clogged artery to a lightning bolt
After Angelica witnesses her father’s attack on Darius – the first of many fight scenes – the novel enters the “foggy border country between dream and reality”, as Angelica, having learned to occupy herself by telling stories, imagines a parallel narrative in which Darius has not been killed. Instead, carrying his broken arm “like a basket of eggs”, he escapes on a passing pickup truck and falls in with old sailing buddies.
“Something peculiar is happening here,” someone thinks. “Time is repeating and rhyming...” Soon, Darius literally turns into Pericles, whose pan-Mediterranean escapades while on the run from a hired assassin – including a star-crossed affair with another princess, Chloë – make up the bulk of The Porpoise.
Haddon teams the novel’s dreaminess with electrically lucid action: shipwrecks, nick-of-time escapes and combat scenes that would give Lee Child a run for his money. He can be grisly when he wants to but he’s no gore-monger, in one case achieving his effects by refraining from describing a pivotal fight, suddenly muting the volume.
His present-tense narration confidently inhabits everything from a clogged artery to a lightning bolt. Characterisation is brisk and vivid (we’re told that Philippe, waiting to leave hospital with baby Angelica after Maja’s death, “hasn’t stood in a queue or waited in a public place since Cambridge”) and Haddon’s descriptions are often just downright brilliant: witness the perfection of “buckled crucifix” for Maja’s downed jet.
Ethical concerns underpin the adrenaline-fuelled adventure. A startling interlude in Jacobean London features the ghost of Shakespeare on a voyage down the Thames with another dead playwright, George Wilkins, a pimp widely thought to be the co-author of Pericles. “Perhaps it was Wilkins who gave the abused princess no name and two empty lines,” we’re told. Maybe, but it’s hard not to feel the novel puts Shakespeare on a pedestal when it lets Wilkins take the rap for victim-blaming lines such as “Bad child, worse father”, or for calling rape “incest”; errors that Haddon portrays as a symptom of Wilkins’s real-life crimes, avenged here in supernatural style.
Carried away in the moment, however, you barely pause for breath, let alone question the novel’s deep-lying logic. Line by line, Haddon throws everything at making it a transcendent, transporting experience – which is part of the point, given that The Porpoise turns on the consolations of storytelling, which aren’t just a cliche in a book that is essentially about a girl seeking to escape her ravaged body.
A helix, a mirror ball, a literary box of tricks... take your pick: this is a full-spectrum pleasure, mixing metafictional razzmatazz with pulse-racing action and a prose style to die for. I’ll be staggered if it’s not spoken of whenever prizes are mentioned this year.