In The Children of Jocasta, Natalie Haynes expertly brings to life the overlooked females in two well known Ancient Greek tragedies: Oedipus and Antigone.
We follow Jocasta (Oedipus) and Ismene (Antigone) in alternating chapters as Haynes weaves a wonderfully immersive and emotive story stripped of magic and focusses on rationalising these myths. Now while I admit that I knew the vague outline of the Oedipus tragedy (very, very vaguely – I certainly didn’t know who Jocasta was) before reading, I knew nothing at all of Antigone, the only recognisable aspect to me being the name, and I don’t think I was at a disadvantage. It took me a few chapters to link the two women and I enjoyed discovering that for myself. However, that’s not to say those familiar with the plots will find nothing new here. By giving these two women their voices we view the more well known characters and scenes in a different light and offers alternative explanations.
Earlier I said that Haynes rationalises these stories, and in many ways she does. For example the riddling Sphinx becomes a group of bandits patrolling the mountains outside Thebes’ high walls. By doing this the focus is on the events and how they impact Jocasta and Ismene. It lends a sense of authenticity to the story that is very effective in whisking the reader away to another time and place. I find it easier to relate to characters in situations that I can place myself in rather than in a fantastical world where you lose the sense of reality and thus feel a distance from the characters. Although I can never go back in time, the pleasure is in the details as Haynes’ wonderful descriptions meant that I could picture the scenes perfectly. I could feel the blistering heat of the Theban summers as well as the cool relief from dipping feet into fountains. Pure escapism, especially in late winter!
The writing is truly immersive, not only did the wonderful settings jump from the page but also the emotions and relationships between the characters. It’s not a long book and does follow two separate storylines told decades apart yet the way she paces and weaves the character interactions means the reader really gets to know them and feel their pain. Some parts, notably towards the end, are desperately, desperately sad, although I do admit that perhaps I felt the twists more from not knowing the story beforehand.
I really didn’t want to put this down and I am keeping my fingers crossed the Natalie Haynes brings out another retelling soon.