By Jay Paine
Admirers of the brilliant drama of Classical Greece have probably read or seen Sophocles’ renowned plays Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannos, which even after two millennia still
stand high on the literary podium. Some might think no one else could tell the tragic story of Oedipus and his family better, except perhaps Aescleus, the father of tragedy himself, who was the author of an earlier Oedipus themed trilogy known as the Oedipodea. But then in the twenty-first century comes Natalie Haynes’ novel The Children of Jocasta, and just as I couldn’t set
down these great tragedians' works, neither could I set down Haynes’ novel. Although she adheres to the major plot points and channels the same energy embodied within these original dramas, Haynes presents a fresh and nuanced story for the lovers of Classical literature. In this brief review, I will be discussing what Haynes did to craft such a compelling read.
The first aspect of the novel that compelled me was its structure. She structured her story to maximize the complexity of the characters. By pairing the plight of the impiously wed couple’s children (the events recounted in Antigone) alongside the struggles faced by Jocasta and Oedipus (the events recounted in Oedipus Tyrannos), Haynes puts the humanity and flaws of every character—including Oedipus—on display. In the first chapter, readers are introduced to Ismene, one of the fated couple’s daughters, and she finds herself in the center of an elaborate scheme to overthrow her regal brother, a situation brought on in part by her parents’ poor decisions. Thus, in this first chapter, readers sympathize with Ismene and feel contempt toward Jocasta and Oedipus. But then the second chapter shifts focus to Jocasta and how she was unwillingly married into Theban royalty, where she found herself subject to a cursed prophecy. Suddenly, readers cannot help but sympathize with Jocasta. This sympathetic tug-of-war continues throughout the novel, forcing readers to persistently sympathize with the entire cast of characters. However, in the Greek tragedies, it’s easier to scorn the actions of Jocasta and Oedipus when focusing solely on the plight of their children (the entirety of Antigone). Don’t get me wrong: Sophocles and Aescleus crafted complex and all-too-human characters, but the structure of sequential plays doesn’t lend itself to the effect Haynes creates.
Another aspect that I appreciate was Haynes’ attention to ancient Greek culture. The book was painstakingly researched, as Haynes got the details right, including the food Thebans consumed. Also, Haynes not only crafted her novel with ancient Greek culture in mind, but she crafted it with their language, too. Whenever appropriate, Haynes calls people and items by their original Greek names instead of an English equivalent. For example, Jocasta is referred to as Basilea instead of Queen, measurements are stated in stades instead of feet, and a wedding is not merely a wedding but a gamos. And Haynes’ attention to language doesn’t stop with words; she often maintains ancient Greek idioms and syntactic structures to mirror what a Greek sentence might have looked like. English sentences are often short and distinct whereas ancient Greek ones tend to flow for many lines using participles and relative clauses and lengthy interruptions. Although this can make her prose challenging to read at times, this decision makes the story feel all the more Greek and speaks to her credibility as an author retelling a classical myth.
Although I am astounded by how accurately Haynes captures Greek culture, language, and mythology, I think the best part of her novel is its contemporary feel. Although I feel like I’m reading an ancient Greek story in Greek (minus the lengthy and exhausting efforts of translation), the novel feels oddly contemporary and at times like it belongs in the genre of dystopia. The story takes place within the city-state of Thebes, and many of the characters never leave its walls, including the queen, as they believe the ‘Outlying’, the lands beyond the walls, is home to vicious sphinxes who will surely kill them should they leave. Queen Jocasta even reflects on her life trapped within the city, noting that she has no concept of certain geological features like the sea. Because of this, the novel reminds me of dystopian stories like the ones told by Lois Lowery. But the similarities do not end with the setting; the presence of the Reckoning, a deadly plague, adds to the dystopian feel. Although the novel was published in 2018, I found that it offers an interesting commentary on how a government might manage the outbreak of a disease, which feels particularly relevant given the COVID-19 pandemic. While the suffering and dying Theban citizens beg their government to take action, nothing stops those desiring absolute control from engaging in political theater while continuing to squabble for power. Because this novel provides such a detailed account of governmental corruption during a disease outbreak, I believe it is a worthwhile read for those wanting a novel that criticizes how governments might handle pandemics.
All in all, The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes is an excellent novel, and I believe it speaks to a large audience, both lovers of classical literature and lovers of a good contemporary story. It brilliantly retells the story of Jocasta, Oedipus, and their children, ensuring that readers sympathize and feel contempt for each character, which is an effect that is not possible to achieve if following the conventions of Classical Greek drama. Haynes also achieves a balance between retelling the story but also making it her own. Thus, if you enjoy drama, mythology, ancient Greek, or dystopia, then this is a novel to add to your reading list.