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book review

A deep dive into the tale of Pericles

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There’s a medieval trader who passes through the middle of Mark Haddon’s notable new book, “The Porpoise.” On the road, the trader hears tales of intrigue. One bit of hearsay involves a city ruled by two sisters, whose brother has gone missing.

That brother is in fact the trader himself: Pericles, the prince of Tyre, who has led a life of adventure devastated by the death in childbirth of his wife, and his estrangement from their daughter, Marina.

The story of Pericles makes up one of the odder sagas of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. It’s the basis for a play widely attributed to a collaboration between Shakespeare and the part-time playwright George Wilkins, an “innkeeper” and serial abuser who more than likely ran a brothel. Haddon, the author of the prize-winning 2003 novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” has spun a fantastical yarn using fibers from the Pericles legend, the Shakespeare-Wilkins association, and his own modern-day interpretation, involving an entitled widower and the daughter he smothers.

The plot thickens from the first pages. A boy climbs aboard a small aircraft piloted by his father, who is ferrying a fellow houseguest from a vineyard in France back to London. The boy, bullied at boarding school, enjoyed the holiday getaway. He recalls the exquisite pleasure of “swimming in the rain, having the vacated pool area entirely to himself, the pebbled fizz of the surface and the blue silence under.” [p. 6] Haddon is a writer of acute precision.

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The tired boy falls asleep even before the plane takes off. The bullying doesn’t matter now: “In two hours he will be dead.” [p. 6]

The boy’s fate proves ancillary to the story — it’s the pregnant Maja, the other passenger, whose death in the crash sets Haddon’s time-traveling tale of dark family confidences, cataclysmic events, and deep-sea symbolism in motion. Maja and her husband, Philippe, live a life of extreme privilege, and a grieving Philippe raises their daughter – saved in an emergency delivery in the wreckage of the plane – in virtual captivity.

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Admirers, and there are many, of Haddon’s small miracle in the creation of his apparently autistic-savant teenager in “The Curious Incident” may recognize the author’s knack for capturing the emotional gulfs between human beings. Philippe is remote, unknowable, even to those closest to him. He answers none of the condolences he receives in the wake of his wife’s death: “It is not that he dislikes the idea of seeming weak, or calling upon the kindness of equals; it is simply a transaction he has never learnt.” [p. 25]

Philippe’s daughter, Angelica, grows into a young lady keeping a terrible secret. Secluded by her father from the outside world, she loses herself in books. Her favorite stories “are the old ones,” writes Haddon, “those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.” [p. 38]

The story of Philippe and Angelica, and the young man, Darius, who becomes her ill-fated suitor, unlocks a door into Pericles’s world. That door is smashed in, actually, when a band of mutineers take an axe to the door of the prince’s cabin. The sailors are convinced that Marina’s presence will bring bad luck; her mother’s body was buried at sea for the same reason.

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Pericles, a master warrior, puts down the insurrection singlehandedly. The baby’s nurse should be grateful, “but the ferocity with which he fought to save them terrifies her almost as much as the actions of their captors.” [p. 173] The prince’s grief, she believes, has made a monster of him.

There are a few loose ends in “The Porpoise,” and connections float by in a sea of allusion. The aquatic mammal of the title appears as an omen, an apparition, two ships’ names, and carved and painted keepsakes. In dream theory, the porpoise represents balance, healing, and the redemption of water. For Angelica, the porpoise shows the way out.

THE PORPOISE: A NOVEL

By Mark Haddon

Doubleday, 320 pp., $27.95


James Sullivan is the author of five books and a regular Boston Globe contributor. E-mail him at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.