Sixth former Pheebs reviews The Children of Jocasta in anticipation of Natalie Haynes Festival appearance to discuss her forthcoming novel, A Thousand Ships.
I’ll admit it gladly. I am a huge fan of Natalie Haynes and her amazing Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics series on BBC Radio 4. I was therefore incredibly excited to discover that she was going to be speaking at ChipLitFest about her newest book, A Thousand Ships, out in early May, advance copies available at the Festival. Until then, here’s a review of one of her earlier novels, The Children of Jocasta. I devoured it in a very short time and I’m thrilled and privileged to review such a fantastic book.
The Children of Jocasta is based on two plays by Sophocles; Oedipus Tyrannos (otherwise known as Oedipus the King or, in the Latin, Oedipus Rex) and Antigone. Anyone who knows about Freud’s infamous Oedipus complex will know how the first one ends. Antigone, meanwhile, is about one of Oedipus’s daughters and her struggle to bury one of her two late brothers against her uncle’s orders.
This novel tells the tales of these two tragedies from the point of view of Jocasta and Ismene, two (largely silent) female protagonists; the first, the wife (and mother) of Oedipus and the second, the sister of Antigone and daughter of Jocasta. Reimagining androcentric classical texts through a female perspective has been growing in popularity lately, one such recent book on this theme being Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. But Natalie Haynes has made her novel wonderfully different through her clever choice of narrators and timeframe.
Firstly, it constantly switches between two timelines. One follows Jocasta’s life, from her first marriage through to the original’s death-filled ending, while the other details the events leading up to the killings of Ismene and Antigone’s brothers, the ensuing fight for the right to bury the disgraced one and the aftermath of this conflict of will. The intertwining plotlines give nothing away about the other though, despite one being set during the next generation. They start earlier than the original stories too, thus providing context to the incestuous misunderstanding in Oedipus Tyrannos and to the cause of the brothers’ deaths. Suddenly the plots of the originals make more sense and the reader can sympathise with the characters much more instead of ranting angrily about all the bad decisions made, like one does in horror films.
The choice of narrators is also incredibly clever. Haynes herself notes how many forget that Jocasta is the first to realise that Oedipus is actually her offspring. Meanwhile, since Antigone is the leading figure of the two sisters, Ismene is left in her shadow. But by choosing the underrepresented Jocasta and Ismene, Haynes is able to tease out previously hidden qualities; the former’s fierce intelligence and dominance, the latter’s hidden courage and determination equal to that of Antigone’s…
The Children of Jocasta is a mesmerising book that not only shows the depth of overlooked (often female) characters in classical plays but also their potential to be a central focus with their own issues worthy of consideration. I’m really hoping that there will be many, many more different myths and plays reimagined from the female perspective by Natalie Haynes in the future, because that is EXACTLY what I want to read.