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Review: The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes
Europa, 2018. 295 pp. $18

In the ancient Greek city-state of Thebes, a young girl is affianced without warning, warmth, or joy to Laius, the king. Jocasta, though wishing to be dutiful, can’t help think that her parents don’t care about her—they favor her much-younger brother, Creon—and have betrayed her for the expected advantages of the marriage.

More bewildering yet, right after the wedding, Laius disappears for weeks in the mountains with his drinking and hunting buddies, leaving his young bride alone with a few attendants. Why did he marry her, then? Wasn’t it to produce heirs that would secure the throne and prevent future conflict in Thebes?

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,1808, Oedipus and the Sphinx (courtesy Louvre Museum, Paris, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Good luck with that. Thebes is home to the tortured souls already mentioned, later joined by Oedipus and the children he’ll have with Jocasta: Eteocles and Polynices, the quarrelsome princes; and Antigone and Ismene, their devoted sisters. These names live today largely because of Sophocles, who dramatized their tragic ends and the curse that hung over their family.

But Haynes, who writes in her afterword that Sophocles is only one classical source of the Theban myths, has taken them in a different, fascinating direction. Narrating alternately between Jocasta’s point of view and Ismene’s—with an occasional snippet from Oedipus and Creon—Haynes recounts a version of events that has more to do with passion and politics than oracles, messengers, and hubris, though those crucial elements do appear.

The author retells the story from a feminine (and feminist) viewpoint, relying on voices that are traditionally walk-ons (especially Ismene’s), but that’s just the surface. The reader will instantly recognize what lies beneath. First off, Haynes has reimagined Jocasta as a neglected child who would look upon the sudden, unexpected advent of the young Oedipus as the promise of the love she never received.

For his part, he’s the clever, willful operator who’s crushed the Sphinx (here in less mythical guise) and stolen a march on his rivals, which accounts for his instant popularity but has implications for how he’ll behave down the road.

I admire this approach, and if the result seems modern, not Sophoclean, for the most part, it works. As with Joan, Katherine J. Chen’s novel, The Children of Jocasta will strike some readers as revisionist. So what? The treatment here still contains human truth and gives much to think about.

Haynes’s Thebans are less concerned with divine will or their place in the cosmos than their desires, ambitions, political power, morality, and what the people outside the palace will think of them. Some of these mythic figures are more pious than others, but none believe that the gods have sealed their fates and they’re mere puppets. Quite the contrary; The Children of Jocasta involves contests of will for high stakes.

What’s also interesting is how the men in this family, or most of them, love their wives, daughters, and sisters. Fathers want daughters, and nobody talks of exposing girl infants on hillsides. Women have secondary roles to men, but there’s no doubt that queens matter or that they hold power. Ismene’s love for her family helps drive the action, and both her father and uncle care for her, despite what else they do.

As a dramatic critic, Aristotle famously wrote that plot matters above all. Since the ancient playwrights could not change the myths, that makes sense. But here, we have a character-driven novel based on those myths. I find that intriguing.

Haynes’s prose brings Thebes to life, as with this passage, when the newly crowned Jocasta visits the marketplace, amazed at the finery she’s never seen. Nobody recognizes her, and it hasn’t sunk in yet that she can have anything she wants:

On another stall, her eye was caught by piles of clothes in every colour: bright dresses which she longed to touch, every shade of red between orange and pink, every shade of yellow between saffron and unripe lemons. She walked into the thronging aisle and reached out to feel the deep blue fabric of a simple shift dress. It was crisp and unworn and would be the right length without alteration.

However, I wish Haynes tried less hard to make her story and characters “relatable.” She’s created a physician-turned-tutor, Sophon, whom Ismene reveres, and who plays a key role in events. That’s fine. But Sophon’s philosophy, which stresses the influence of others’ choices on one’s own and questions the gods’ power, even their existence, seems a stretch. I like this man and his steadying, kindly influence, yet I wonder if he’s meant to reassure us these people aren’t so different from ourselves. But Haynes’s entire approach has already made that clear, so why does the narrative need that from him?

A couple minor tics add to my sense that the author has worried—needlessly—that we won’t see ourselves in these troubled Thebans. She uses nicknames, which sometimes threw me—Ani, Isy, Eteo—and laughed or smiled or other improbable verbs instead of said. I can’t help think of A Thousand Ships, Haynes’s more recent book, and my sense of it, that she lacks confidence in what she’s created. If so, she’s a much better author than she knows.

The Children of Jocasta is a vivid, thought-provoking novel, well worth your time.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.