I tend to avoid novels that are ‘re-imaginings’ of classic works, Shakespeare and the Greek Myths having received their fair share of late. I think my reaction is based on the recognition that enjoyment of the work would surely be enhanced by greater familiarity with the ‘original’. Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hagseed’ is a case in point. I did read, enjoy and admire that but was also aware that such a gifted writer would be playing with all sorts of allusions to ‘The Tempest’, with which I have only a glancing awareness. Hence, my enjoyment was dogged with these thoughts all the way through.
However, because I was, like so many others, deeply impressed by Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ and because ’The Porpoise’ had received such positive reviews, I decided to give it a go. And I ended up deeply impressed. It is a strangely structured novel, beginning with the birth of a young girl who is rescued from the womb of her mother who has just died in the crash of a small plane into a French grain store. Wham! The writing straightaway hits the reader between the eyes and carries on in that vein.
The young girl, Angelica, is brought up by her obscenely wealthy father in a mansion in England, his desire to protect her turning him into her jailer and, in time, her abuser. A would-be suitor attempts to rescue her and is murdered by one of the father’s heavies.
Or is he?
At this point the book enters an unreal, mythical world, many worlds in fact, as the young man also appears to escape on a small boat out through Poole Harbour to the Channel. And it gets weirder. He turns into Pericles of Tyre and goes on to have many adventures wandering through the ancient Mediterranean.
The writing has an amazing fizz to it with fast-paced action and a wonderful assault on the senses. The prose is beautifully delivered and held me where a lesser writer might have tried my patience too much with the strangeness.
Every now and then, there is another short section on Angelica who begins to dangerously weaken herself by refusing to eat. Another setting that appears a couple of times, features Shakespeare and a George Wilkins, who probably collaborated on a less well-known play that features Pericles. In one scene, both are dead and set out from London to sail on a small craft down the Thames to the sea. Wilkins was a brutal pimp and there is an amazing scene in which all the women he has abused rise one by one from out of the depths to confront him. It is one of the most dramatic pieces of writing I have ever read!
I don’t know my Greek Myths at all well, and my Shakespeare is not that much better. But I thought this was a cracking, impressive read and despite, or because of, its distinctly unconventional qualities, it is a book I really enjoyed.