Durham Book Festival: Mark Haddon ‘The Porpoise’


Mark Haddon is yet another jewel in Durham Book Festival’s exceptional crown. The writer of the celebrated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and, more recently, the creative and powerful re-telling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, titled The Porpoise is joined by Professor Simon James for an evening of enlightening and exciting discussion. 

The Porpoise is a wonderfully rendered story of empowerment, disillusionment, love, family, and loss. Haddon is a master of portraying humanity, in all its gore, selfishness, cruelty, complexity, resilience and beauty. Indeed, his unique ability to successfully portray female characters, without the usual cocktail of clichés, condescension, dehumanisation and relish for their bloodshed that often characterises male authors’ approach to writing women, inspires much confidence in the ability of men to contribute positively to discussions of gender issues in a post ‘me-too’ world. 

Haddon is a master of portraying humanity

Haddon is unafraid to make the discussion personal and honest, recalling how he was a sensitive child. When asked how he approaches writing women, he explains his secret is merely an acknowledgement that all human beings have the same basic needs, sensibilities and weaknesses. He accepts the predominantly homogenous nature of human experience, that we all share a very similar lens. Haddon refuses to believe that our race, gender, abilities and sexuality are differences that overpower our similarities. 

Indeed, discussions of Haddon’s feminism (a label that he, refreshingly, welcomes) are unavoidable when discussing a book fuelled by a desire to give voice to one of Shakespeare’s forgotten women. This is a book that heavily features the destructiveness of male sexual violence and hubris. Haddon demonstrates a contempt for the toxicity of hyper-masculinity and their tendency towards needless violence. 

Haddon at all times appears genuine and affected, filled with passion and excitement. Professor Simon James guides the conversation with expert ease, navigating both lofty and more straightforward questions and ideas with academic serenity. Haddon answers all questions with a rigour that many authors steer clear from. His enthusiasm brings a light joy to the room and after the hour-long discussion, one feels as though no time has passed at all. Indeed, Professor James injects his own passionate academic interest into the discussion, mentioning his interest in Victorian literature, akin to Haddon’s own love of the period.

Haddon answers all questions with a rigour that many authors steer clear from

The Porpoise is a complex and nuanced book and so warrants a complex and nuanced discussion, which Durham Book Festival readily facilitates. The evening was serious and humorous in equal measure, and I delighted in the invigorating atmosphere of mutual understanding. The beautifully crafted set and the sense of togetherness created by a theatre full of avid readers such as myself, allowed me to leave The Gala Theatre with a hopeful feeling in the face of our ever-darkening world.

Photo by Noah Boyer via Unsplash

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