The title story of Mark Haddon’s collection The Pier Falls described a seaside catastrophe in documentary fashion, cataloguing its causes (“a rivet fails”), its nightmarish unfolding and its myriad costs in affectless yet mesmerising prose. What impressed was the way Haddon imbued what might have felt like a creative writing exercise with an appalled compassion.
The Porpoise, a novel that draws on stories from the ancient world, medieval literature and Shakespeare and makes a wild scramble of them, opens in a similar way. Members of a super-rich elite are disbanding after a weekend in a French vineyard; one of them, Maja, accepts a lift in the light aircraft flown by another guest. Fond of adventure and conscious that in a few weeks time she will give her life over to birth and motherhood, she waves her husband Philippe goodbye.
Maja never makes it back to her mansion just outside Winchester; the Piper PA-28 Warrior (Haddon loves details) runs into thick cloud and then the wall of a grain silo. Its pilot is decapitated, and Maja too dies, but not until a passing doctor has somehow enabled her to give birth to a baby girl, whose name she and Philippe have already chosen but which – characteristic of the nested mysteries that stud the novel – the reader never discovers. Instead, Philippe calls the child Angelica, and sequesters her so that she may be protected from further harm.
That, then, is The Porpoise’s set-up, but one that gives little indication of the expansiveness to follow; beginning with the cockpit of a doomed plane and the sinister silences of a rich man’s house, it transforms into a narrative propelled across stormy seas and pooling rivers, through palace courts and Southwark streets, towards sieges and plagues and hand-to-hand combat. Neither do the bare bones give many clues about the emotional territory that Haddon seeks to cover, which includes Philippe’s morphing from a devastated widower to an incestuous child abuser, and Angelica from a solitary child to an adolescent in determined retreat from the horrors of her life.
Angelica’s way out is the spinning story that forms much of the rest of the novel, a retelling of the story of Pericles that bounces between the versions of a Merovingian bishop, that contained in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, a Breton lai and the play that is widely believed to have been written by Shakespeare and George Wilkins. The story may be taking place in her head, where she might gradually be rewriting her family history so that she is no longer her father’s victim, and so that those lost to her have some prospect of return. As readers, we’re never entirely sure, and the impetus to try to track each change of scene and personnel is dissipated by the intense energy invested in each of the overlapping stories.
It’s more satisfying, then, to yield to the narrative flow: to slip from a brutal gladiatorial contest to a piratical ambush to a sacred grove; and to allow Angelica to become Shakespeare’s Marina, born in a tempest, her mother’s body thrown overboard in a sealed casket.
In The Porpoise Haddon demonstrates the long arc of action and consequences; how a moment of bravado or desire that causes calamity will fester in the minds of those responsible for it. Pericles ignores his heavily pregnant wife’s parents when they tell him not to take her on a sea journey; she dies. He orders a beloved comrade to swim to safety, forgetting that he is unable; he also dies. He abandons his daughter out of grief for his wife and self-reproach; she nearly dies, and is all but dead to him.
But if stories are both cyclical and mutable, are we able to change our own? The Porpoise argues for both continuity – themes that resurface, tropes that seem hard to banish – and for change. Angelica chooses to reinvent her life from the inside of her mind, her withdrawal both a response to trauma and a flight from it. “It needed work at first, pushing further into this strange country,” the narrative tells us. “It is easier now. Perhaps it is the knowledge that she has come too far and that the journey back will be more arduous than continuing. Perhaps it is the gravity of the dark interior which pulls at her with increasing strength as the distance shrinks and her own strength fails.”
The “strongest” characters in the novel are those with the least power and agency: Angelica, abused and imprisoned; Pericles’s dead wife, Chloe, lugged over the edge of a ship to calm the weather gods. But they experience their losses as an opportunity to shrug off the identities created for them, to sideline or erase themselves. It can be, this effortlessly inventive and absorbing story tells us, the best way to survive.
“The Porpoise” has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize
Chatto & Windus, 312pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone