Growing up in New Duston, Northampton, bestselling author of the critically acclaimed book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon found life in the sixties and seventies culturally constricting.
“Every family we saw looked like ours, even on TV. In books, every family looked like ours. It was a very narrow world,” he says.
The world of his latest novel published in May 2019, “The Porpoise” is anything but. It’s a visionary expansive novel that crosses oceans, spans two-time frames and deals with a host of universal themes.
It is also receiving some seriously good reviews in broadsheet national newspapers with Anthony Cummins suggesting in “The Observer” in May, it could well be a contender for novel of the year.
Based on a play co-written by Shakespeare, Pericles, the plot is set within two realities.
In the contemporary time frame, an adventuring hero Darius tries to help Angelica, who is being abused by her father Philippe and ends up fleeing for his life aboard the ship The Porpoise.
Here the story hurtles back to an ancient past where an alternate set of characters, also based on the original play, come to life.
Darius awakens as Pericles, Prince of Tyre. He goes on adventures, wins battles, flees assassins, marries and abandons his baby daughter.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the dark story of Philippe and Angelica continues.
“Moving between the time frames was easy,” says Mark. "Writing a convincing shipwreck and a Greco-Roman sex scene, now that was difficult.”
The idea of reworking a Shakespeare play allowed Mark to experiment with form in the novel and to correct what he saw an injustice in the original version.
“Ultimately I wanted to write a really good novel,” he says.
He landed upon a lesser-known play thought to have been co-written by Shakespeare and George Wilkins, part-time playwright and serial abuser of women.
“In my opinion, it’s not a terribly good play, which gave me licence to wrestle with it and take it to pieces. I couldn’t have done that with Hamlet,” he says.
The theme of abused and trapped women is starkly highlighted throughout.
“In the play, the daughter of the King of Antioch is being sexually abused by her father, but both daughter and father are treated as guilty parties in incest. She is given no name and only two lines.”
In The Porpoise, Angelica holds a prominent if tragic role throughout, as an abused daughter seeking to escape her plight.
“I believe very strongly that we live in a society run largely by and for men, and sometimes the consequences for women are merely annoying, but they are often deeply destructive,” comments Haddon.
He has been commended in reviews of The Porpoise for the quality of his prose. A talented artist, Haddon’s writing is highly visual and he paints pictures with prose packed full of nouns.
Prominent in The Porpoise too is his ability to fuse the physical world with the fantastical. In his world, everyday objects can spark lyrical flights of fantasy.
Mark comments: “I love the physical world. I couldn’t write a novel which consisted only of ideas, thoughts and dialogue, and I’d have trouble reading one. I like furniture and buildings and landscapes.
"I like the things people keep at the back of their kitchen drawers and the parts of a jet engine and the way fossils are formed. I like stuff.”
Maybe this alchemy has its roots planted in his childhood growing up in New Duston.
The son of an architect Mark was the only writer in his family.
“There were cobblers, glove salesmen, factory workers and prizefighters in the family, but there have never been writers of any kind,” he says.
As a boy, he was a self-confessed worrier who would escape mentally by avidly reading books about science. “I was orbiting the moon with Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders.”
Maybe he has broken new frontiers with The Porpoise.
The Porpoise by Mark Haddon is published by Chatto & Windus (£18.99).