In 1393, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer named John Gower published Confessio Amantis, the story of Apollonius of Tyre, and thought to be a translation of an ancient Greek text. It’s the story of a prince who visits Antiochus, king of Antioch. Antiochus has offered the hand of his daughter to anyone who can solve a riddle; fail to solve it and you’re put to death.
The riddle’s solution is that the king is committing incest with his daughter. Apollonius solves it – and is on the run for his life for most of the rest of his life. He has an extraordinary number of adventures, marries the love of his life, she seemingly dies at sea after giving birth, Apollonius goes almost mad with grief – and that’s only the start. Ultimately, the family is reunited – and virtue rewarded.
In 1576, a writer named Lawrence Twine published The Pattern of Painful Adventures, a prose novel based on Gower’s story. William Shakespeare, possibly with the help of a writer, innkeeper, and possible criminal named George Wilkins, wrote and produced a play based on Twine’s retelling of Gower’s story. Shakespeare named his Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It was staged in 1607 or 1608.
Fast forward to 2019. A small plane crashes in northern France; a well-known movie star in the plane gives birth shortly before she dies. Her distraught husband withdraws from social life and raises his daughter in rural England. He falls in love with her, and it leads to incest. The father poses no riddles for would-be suitors to solve, but a suitor shows up, and the girl falls madly in love. The father assumes the role of King Antiochus, sends his right-hand man off to kill the young man, and the game is on.
You’re entering the world of The Porpoise, the latest novel by British author Mark Haddon. He’s not content to writer a contemporary version of Apollonius/Pericles. The Porpoisegoes well beyond that. Haddon retells the original story of Pericles in tandem with the contemporary interpretation, and along with the account of George Wilkins and William Shakespeare.
You might say the novel is three stories in one, and it is, but it becomes much more than that. Haddon is offering a meditation on myth, writing, legend, the human condition, the act of literary creation, and more. The result is stunning – a gripping account written in the present tense that tells us how we continue to relive ancient myths and legends today.
Haddon knows how to pull the reader into a story. The gripping account of how and why the small plane crashes leaves the reader almost gasping – similar to his description of the collapse of a seaside entertainment pier in his short story “The Pier Falls.” The account is so gripping that you can’t stop reading. When you come up for air, you find yourself in ancient Tyre, Antioch, and Tarsus, and then in early Jacobean London. Gradually it all begins to make sense.
Best known for his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Haddon is the author of several novels, young adult novels, and story collections, including The Red House and The Pier Falls. He is also an artist. He blogs under his own name.
The Porpoise is many things, but ultimately it is a novel about how we come to read, understand, and live stories, and how our stories come to be retold again and again.