Book Review

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

the children of jocasta

As I’m sure regular readers of this blog are aware, I’m a big fan of novels that give a new spin on an ancient myth, and I was delighted to hear Natalie Haynes speak at last year’s Hay Winter Weekend, allowing me to pick up a copy of her second novel, The Children of Jocasta.  If you do get the opportunity to hear Haynes give a talk, please do go – I found her talk at Hay to be incredibly interesting and extremely amusing.

In The Children of Jocasta, Natalie Haynes retells the Oedipus and Antigone myths to reveal a new side of an ancient story…

My siblings and I have grown up in a cursed house, children of cursed parents…

Jocasta is just fifteen when she is told that she must marry the King of Thebes, an old man she has never met. Her life has never been her own, and nor will it be, unless she outlives her strange, absent husband.

Ismene is the same age when she is attacked in the palace she calls home. Since the day of her parents’ tragic deaths a decade earlier, she has always longed to feel safe with the family she still has. But with a single act of violence, all that is about to change.

With the turn of these two events, a tragedy is set in motion. But not as you know it.

The Children of Jocasta retells the stories of two Greek plays – Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone.  I was familiar with the tale of Oedipus in the broadest terms – it’s difficult not to be when Freud borrowed his name to describe certain feelings towards one’s opposite sex parent – but Antigone’s tale was a new one to me.  This didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the novel at all, and I felt that it worked as an introduction to these plays.  The novel alternates between the two narratives, and while the two plays are separate, they are connected, and I loved the way that Haynes intertwined the two, revealing a clue in one to explain something in the other.

The tale of Oedipus is told from the perspective of Jocasta, a relatively minor character in Sophocles’ play, despite the important role that she plays, and I thought that this was a nice spin on the story.  Indeed, Oedipus is all but relegated to the side-lines, not appearing until quite late in the novel, and then playing a relatively minor role.  Similarly, the second narrative is told from the perspective of Ismene (Isy) – again a minor character in the play, given a new voice by Haynes in order to tell the story from a different point of view to those traditionally used.

Haynes admits to playing fast and loose with some of the detail in her author’s note at the end of the novel.  I’ve no issue with this, and I wouldn’t have been aware of many of the changes had she not pointed them out herself.  And I think that to tell the story from the perspectives she did that this was necessary.  It’s difficult to focus on Jocasta and yet show Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, for example – you can’t have both, and so the Sphinx becomes a bandit horde terrorising the area around Thebes that Oedipus does battle with, mentioned in passing, rather than being a key scene1.

I haven’t gone into any detail of what happens in either narrative – this is one of those novels where you either know the key details or I’d have to spoil it for you – but this is an entertaining retelling of two Greek tragedies that I’d recommend to fans of Madeleine Miller and Emily Hauser.

Rating ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Also, the riddle of Sphinx can’t be done any more brilliantly that in Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids.

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