Reviewed by Annabel
Natalie Haynes may be most familiar to you as a journalist and broadcaster, popping up on various shows and with her own series Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics on BBC Radio 4, which takes an irreverent look at ancient Greek and Roman life. Her first novel, The Amber Fury, (published as The Furies in the US) was fabulous – combining a contemporary psychological drama with classical themes. I’ve been awaiting her next with anticipation.
The Children of Jocasta gives us more of the same, but it’s also very different. Haynes sticks to writing about what she knows, but there is no contemporary setting, she returns to ancient Greece to retell the stories of Oedipus and Antigone – but from the second characters’ points of view. Jocasta and her daughter/grand-daughter Ismene (Antigone’s sister).
A quick revision on the basic Oedipus myth – please feel free to skip the next paragraph.
Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, but Laius wanted to thwart the prophecy that he’d be killed by his son, so he was put out on the mountainside to perish, but he was found and adopted by the King of Corinth. Learning that he was fated to murder his father and marry his mother, Oedipus sets off to Thebes where he meets an older man, quarrels and kills him – this was Laius! Arriving in Thebes, he learns the king has been killed and the Sphinx is terrorising the city. He answers the Sphinx’s riddle and claims Jocasta, thus fulfilling the prophecy. They have four children, two boys then two girls. Eventually Jocasta learns the truth and hangs herself. Oedipus blinds himself. Jocasta’s brother Creon takes charge with the two sons alternating as rulers – but it doesn’t work and there is much fighting, bloodshed and death to come involving Creon, his own family and the children of Jocasta.
Many of the ancients had mentioned Oedipus in their writings, but Sophocles is accepted as the main chronicler of his story in his three Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. After Sophocles, came others: Roman playwright Seneca did his own retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in the 1st century, for instance, which was then in turn adapted by Ted Hughes in 1969.
Now, Natalie Haynes gives us another version, seen through the eyes of the two women. Their stories both start when they are fifteen years old and entwine around each other throughout the novel.
We meet Ismene first, who is hiding out in the old ice store in the Theban palace, reading a parchment from her old tutor Sophon’s collection. Thirsty, she leaves, but is attacked in the corridor, stabbed under her ribs. She meets her attacker’s eyes before he leaves and she staggers to safety –surviving the brutal assault.
Cut to Jocasta, who at fifteen is giving birth to her first-born with only Teresa the house-keeper to attend her. Laius, her husband, is absent; he’d rather be away with his men hunting in the hills. The baby is a boy, and he’s whisked away by Teresa, while Jocasta is told he was stillborn, strangulated by his umbilical cord. We know otherwise of course.
The chapters then alternate between Ismene and Jocasta. We get a flavour of their lives; being cooped up in the palace, barely allowed out, and certainly not unaccompanied. It’s no fun for a fifteen-year-old.
Ismene’s parents are already dead by the start of the story, but at least she has her brothers and glamorous sister Antigone. However, Antigone has less time for Ismene now she’s discovered boys – Haem in particular – he’s her uncle Creon’s son, their cousin.
But tragedy continues to follow this family. The rivalry between Oedipus and Creon is intense, as is that between Eteocles and Polynices, Ismene’s older brothers. Creon does nothing to stop it either.
Haynes’s storytelling is clever. She cuts the mythical elements to the minimum, concentrating on the powerful drama of family relationships, backed up by the politics and intrigue of the Theban court. In her hands, the Sphinx becomes a band of guerrilla fighters in the hills, not the monster of legend. When a messenger arrives to tell Jocasta that Laius has perished, her reaction is the stuff of pure literary soap:
‘It is the king,’ he replied. ‘I’m very sorry, madam. He is dead.’
‘Dead?’ Jocasta asked. The messenger nodded, his face a mask of mute sympathy. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘So what happens now?’
The old stories are so often the best, getting retold, embellished, modified through the generations. Sophocles and his contemporaries, living in often turbulent, and deity-driven times, had such riches to work with to incorporate into their tales.
Haynes does a fine job in bringing a modern sensibility to the myth, interpreting the old stories with expert eyes to tell how it might really have been. In an author’s note, she explains how she pieced the various parts together and where she adapted them to fit a single story arc. Her clear vision comes to the fore when Thebes is struck once again by plague. That she does this without lessening the drama and sensation of the visceral way they did things, yet invests the arc with a sense of history and clarity. gives us a truly page-turning thriller seen through these two womens’ lives. I loved it and can’t wait to see how Natalie Haynes interprets the classics next.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds. She saw a good but strangely-cast RSC production in 1988 of Hughes’ adaptation of Seneca’s version, in which the actor playing Oedipus was (visibly and in real-life) around 10 years older than the one playing Creon and at least 20 years older than Jocasta.
Natalie Haynes, The Children of Jocasta (Mantle, 2017). 978-1509836154, 352pp., hardback.
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