The Porpoise is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s play Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which is a re-telling of the story of Apollonius, which is a story told by many writers and oral story-tellers going back at least as far as John Gower in 1393. This, at least, is what The Porpoise’s own blurb tells us. Haddon provides some supplementary information as to the history of the story and its various forms. Basically, the story goes that Apollonius or Pericles seeks the hand in marriage of a beautiful young woman who, it turns out, is in an incestuous relationship with her father. When Pericles learns this secret, his life is endangered by the abusive father, who will kill to protect himself. From there, Pericles embarks on numerous adventures and the original father and daughter are largely forgotten. As far as I can tell, the daughter is not even given a name. (I’ve never read or seen the play so I’m going off Wikipedia here.)
In The Porpoise Haddon seeks to offer further background to both Pericles’ story and the daughter’s, while also offering a sometimes modern interpretation of the tale. Angelica is the daughter, the sole survivor of the airplane crash that killed her beautiful mother. Her father, Philippe, wealthy and driven mad with grief, removes himself and his child from the world and convinces himself that their relationship is unique and his sexual abuse of her is somehow allowed.
When a young man stumbles into Angelica and Philippe’s life and quickly discerns the truth of their relationship, Philippe will do anything to save himself. From this point, the book becomes a sort of re-telling and a sort of expansion and loses the modern day setting but keeps it in parts. It’s somewhat confusing but mostly works overall.
If this sounds vague, I know it. I wouldn’t say there twists exactly, especially if you know the stories the book is based on, but Haddon does take some unexpected angles and I don’t want to give those away. There is even a section that focuses on George Wilkins, who is said to be Shakespeare’s collaborator in the writing of Pericles. In my opinion, that section added nothing to the book overall and could have been completely removed without changing anything but for the most part, Haddon’s take on the story is an interesting one.
One of Haddon’s goals in the writing of The Porpoise seems to be to return agency and power to the women of the story. The unnamed and forgotten daughter trapped by her abusive father. The woman Pericles goes on to marry and the daughter they have. In Haddon’s telling, each of these women is given a power that was previously denied to them, and to most female characters in the telling of legends.
The book is easily read and very engaging. There were moments when I found myself wishing it were a story told by a more masterful writer but that isn’t to say Haddon does a bad job. He tends toward repetition and so it begins to feel like we’re seeing the same sights over and over again. At the same time, this sort of fits into the storytelling history of Greek myths and oral traditions. My feeling is that Haddon took on a big task with a great and, I think, admirable goal. As someone unfamiliar with the original story, I found The Porpoise to be an engaging read and a heartfelt tale.