I loved The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes, and picked up a copy of her debut novel as a result of reading it. I also have her latest novel, A Thousand Ships waiting patiently to be read.
Alex Morris has lost everything: her relationship, her career and her faith in the future. Moving to Edinburgh to escape her demons, Alex takes a job teaching at a Pupil Referral Unit. It’s a place for kids whose behaviour is so extreme that they cannot be taught in a normal classroom. Alex is fragile with grief and way out of her depth.
Her fourth-year students are troubled and violent. In desperation to reach them, Alex turns to the stories she knows best. Greek tragedy isn’t the most obvious way to win over such damaged children, yet these tales of fate, family and vengeance speak directly to them.
Enthralled by the bloodthirsty justice of the ancient world, the teenagers begin to weave the threads of their own tragedy – one that Alex watches, helpless to prevent.
The Amber Fury is quite different to The Children of Jocasta and A Thousand Ships, in that they are both retellings of Greek myths. The Children of Jocasta focuses upon the myths of Oedipus and Antigone, while A Thousand Ships looks at the Trojan War. The Amber Fury is different in that it has a present-day setting, yet still utilises Haynes’ expertise as a classicist.
The novel begins with Alex Morris’ arrival in Edinburgh. It’s clear that she has been through a traumatic experience, although the details of this aren’t fully revealed until later in the novel. It’s obvious to the reader that she is trying to get away from everything though, having left behind a successful career as a theatre director, and cutting off ties with friends and family. Grief, and how we deal with it, is one of the central themes of the novel, and Haynes has written the character of Alex brilliantly as someone who is struggling in this regard. She hates all the usual platitudes of it’ll get better, and wants nothing more than to be left alone
wrapped up in her grief like a comfortable old coat.
Teaching at a pupil referral unit, she struggles to connect with the five children in her fourth-year class (year 10 if you’re more familiar with that terminology, or children aged 14 to 15 years old). There to teach drama, they reject the notion of reading Shakespeare, but their interest is roused by the Greek Tragedies, beginning with Oedipus Tyrannus. I loved the discussions around the plays, and don’t worry if you’re not familiar with them – Haynes, through Morris, presents them in simple terms, ostensibly for the pupils, but in a way that also makes them accessible to the reader. The plays raise interesting questions around fate, morality etc. and the discussions around the plays and the characters bring them to life, and through the plays, Alex engages her pupils in healthy debate. It’s not all perfect, and Alex doesn’t suddenly transform these somewhat troubled youngsters into model pupils, but you can see how teenagers would become engaged by such topics, especially when presented as they are here.
It’s clear from the outset that something goes horribly wrong in Edinburgh, and again, it takes some time for the who, what, and why to be revealed. In a way, The Amber Fury becomes a tragedy in its own right, echoing the plays that the students have studied. If the classics aren’t your thing, don’t be put off by the focus on them. This is a fascinating tale, slow-paced but one that will draw you in as you watch the events unfold, helpless to intervene.