Retelling the myth

Natalie Haynes draws upon the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus in The Children of Jocasta — however, from a female perspective. Essentially, the book is a reimagining of the myth most famously put down by the dramatist Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannos. There are also, as the author mentions in the afterword, references to it in Homer’s Odyssey. It follows Oedipus, son of Laius, King of Thebes, who ends up separated from his parents. In a tragic sequence of events, Oedipus unwittingly slays his father and takes his mother Jocasta as wife without knowing her true relationship to him.

The Children of Jocasta introduces two narratives — one from the perspective of Jocasta who is married at 15 to a king, and the other from that of a certain Isy. A plague has ravaged Thebes when the novel opens, leaving a trail of dead in its wake. Isy, it seems, lives in a time much after Jocasta’s — she remembers her parents and their once-idyllic life. Her brother Polyn and Eteo share the kingship of Thebes, and her sister Ani is a beautiful, apparently self-absorbed young woman. Isy’s narrative is presented in the first person, separating it from Jocasta’s in the third person. Both characters are separated by time, and the change of perspective is effective, although getting used to the alternating timelines is a little challenging at first.

Jocasta, the daughter of ambitious parents, suddenly finds herself married to the much older king. There is nothing she can do to prevent the marriage or speak against it. She is young, and as her mother makes abundantly clear, powerless to hold out against forces too strong to counter. She finds herself queen in a strange palace with an elderly, absent king. Even the servants do not take notice of this teenaged newcomer until she wanders into the kitchen. And when a child is born to her, Jocasta cannot stop that child from being taken away. It is a strange way to treat a queen, and the fact that Jocasta is young and rather naïve does not ease her concerns. Instead, her reticence augments the power Teresa, the housekeeper, has over her.

Isy, on the other hand, is sister to kings who discovers political intrigue. She belongs to a family that some believe is cursed. Assassins in the palace and an attempt to murder her leave her with suspicions and a fear for her family’s safety.

Both women live in a peculiarly hostile environment — that of whispers and rumours and ambition. And, of course, the plague that kills in the blink of an eye. Jocasta’s life passes by in a fugue of hazy grief until a stranger named Oedipus arrives in her hall. Isy knows there is trouble in the palace and tries to hold out against it. Unfortunately, palace intrigue and doubt begin to mar the idyllic life she has come to know. Jocasta of The Children of Jocasta is a woman who is thrown into a life she does not want, and then she spends the next 15 or so years of her existence in something of a daze. When she does take control of her life she does it convincingly… only to have the tragedy depicted in the original Sophocles play befall her. There is, however, the plague, and the way it weaves itself into the backstory — the book does present an interesting view of ancient Theban life. Teresa, the housekeeper, is complex. There is no telling what her motivations are. She resents the queen and makes her resentment plain.

Oedipus is presented as hot-headed and impulsive, and fond of his family. Even Laius, the absent king, manages to make his presence felt through Jocasta’s point of view as an aloof, almost unfeeling man. Sophon, the physician, comes across as a voice of reason, and a character common to both Jocasta and Isy.

Isy and Ani are sisters bonded through tragedy. Both are uniquely different and neither really understands the other. Isy is serious and less prone to romance and fancy. She is also remarkably strong, considering her response to an attempt on her life. Their full names and true identity are revealed gradually, although readers familiar with the myth may harbour a guess early on. The characterisation is consistent and it is easy to sympathise with the figures in the story.

There are no frills to the prose in The Children of Jocasta. It is a story told simply and convincingly. Rituals, sports and games, and the general atmosphere of the times are lucidly portrayed. There is also an element of suspense threaded into the tale. Although some sections may seem a little slow, particularly those dealing with the first-person Isy, this is an enjoyable and readable book. The female perspective is intriguing, especially with the story remaining true to the myth.

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Retelling the myth


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