21 book rev Porpoise

Doubleday, 320 pages, $27.95

Mark Haddon has written a terrifically exciting novel called The Porpoise.

Could we just stop there? Almost anything else I say about this book risks scattering readers like startled birds. Indeed, if Haddon weren’t the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I would have darted away from his new book, too.

The plot is based on a Greek legend, reaching back to the story of Apollonius, who exposes a king’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter. When the king moves to silence him, Apollonius flees and endures a string of harrowing exploits and far-fetched coincidences. That moldy tale served as the outline for several versions during the Middle Ages and then a chaotic Jacobean play called Pericles, which was probably written by Shakespeare and a London pimp named George Wilkins. And to make The Porpoise even more challenging, Haddon twists modern and ancient renditions of the Apollonius story around each other, so that we’re constantly shifting between them.

The whole thing would be a postmodern mess if it weren’t for Haddon’s astounding skill as a storyteller. The Porpoise is so riveting that I found myself constantly pining to fall back into its labyrinth of swashbuckling adventure and feminist resistance.

The story opens with a terrifying plane crash that leaves a wealthy man named Philippe alone to raise his infant daughter, Angelica. Corrupted by grief and hubris, Philippe eventually starts sexually abusing Angelica in the confines of their mansion. In this haunting reimagining of the old tragedy, Haddon provides a blistering critique of the way money distorts the moral atmosphere, choking off dissent and rendering dazzled outsiders incapable of seeing what’s happening.

When a young art dealer guesses Philippe’s ghastly secret, the story grows even hotter with peril. In the most magical way, the narrative seems to melt, transforming this modern-day crime into the ancient tale of Pericles. One moment the art dealer is speeding away on a yacht, and then suddenly, “something is very wrong.” The narrator notes, “There are whole towns missing along the coast. ... The sails are different. The sails are huge, and square, and there are way too many of them. The deck shifts unexpectedly. Not moves as such but ... expands.” Even as the art dealer passes out, his mind is flooded with someone else’s memories.

We’re used to such molten transitions in film, but seeing one take place so flawlessly on the page feels like sorcery.

To thwart a mysterious assassin, Pericles sails the high seas on his ship, the Porpoise, and still has time to save a beleaguered city and win the heart of a headstrong woman who goes on to face her own excruciating challenges. But he never feels more alive than when he’s under attack. Diving into the water just out of reach of some killer’s sword, “he could whoop for joy had he breath to spare,” which is exactly how I felt reading these pulse-pounding scenes.

The way Haddon has streamlined this ramshackle tale into a sleek voyage of gripping tribulation is fantastic. But what’s especially remarkable is that the modern-day scenes interwoven with Pericles’ ancient adventures feel no less electrifying. The contemporary events have been polished to an antique patina and endowed with classical weight. Despite all the testosterone-fueled adventure in The Porpoise, the various ways women endure and resist gradually become the novel’s focus. And the novel’s final moment provides a brilliant blending of realism and mythology, a poignant acknowledgment of the limits of female power — and its boundless potential.

Please don’t let the obscure source material of The Porpoise scare you away. I promise its intimidating tangle of backstories will yield to your interest, and its structural complications will cohere in your imagination. The result is a novel just as thrilling as it is thoughtful.