The Children of Jocasta
by Natalie Haynes
(Mantle 2017) pp336 hardback £16.99
Reviewed by Mark Greenstock, Chairman of Sherborne Literary Society
Natalie Haynes has carved out a multi-media career for herself on stage, radio and television and in journalism, promoting literature in general and, as her show title put it, ‘Standing up for the Classics’ in particular. She has appeared on the Edinburgh Fringe and other festivals as a stand-up comedian, and has been a panellist on Wordaholics, Quote … Unquote and The Book Quiz, a reviewer on Front Row and a judge for the Booker Prize for which she claims to have read 151 books. She regularly writes for The Times and The Independent, and has appeared on BBC One’s Question Time. Predictably, she occasionally turns her hand to writing her own books – but Haynes is never predictable. Her first adult novel was The Furies (or The Amber Fury) (2014), receiving critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Before that there was The Ancient Guide to Modern Life (2010) and a prizewinning children’s book The Great Escape (2007). Now, hot off the press in 2017, comes a second novel, The Children of Jocasta.
Here she offers a fresh look at the ancient Greek myth, set in plague-ridden Thebes, of Oedipus, who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. But this is no mere re-telling in modern guise like Donna Tartt’s Secret History. It is a complete reimagining of the old story, taking the viewpoint of the two women (Jocasta and her daughter Ismene) who are given the least to say in the traditional versions, yet whose feelings and experiences are as visceral as any of the ‘main’ characters. From the start we are taken into the world of gods, temples, palaces, city walls and squares, sunshine and stifling heat, that was archaic Greece; such is the power of Haynes’ imagination that despite (or perhaps because of) the relentless shifting between two time-frames, that far-distant world becomes our conceptual environment.
Many of the elements of the original story are thrown into the air and come down in a different configuration, which may leave traditional text-based classicists feeling less than happy. Even the Sphinx turns into a gang of brigands operating in the mountains. But as the author asks in her teasing Afterword, was there ever an ‘original story’? She cheerfully confesses, with reference to Jocasta’s two sons Polynices and Eteocles, that she has ‘played extremely fast and loose with their story.’ It doesn’t seem to matter, though. In the tradition of Mary Renault, there are atmospheric descriptions, blistering emotions, gripping action and sudden violence – but Haynes is less roseate-hued than Renault, and in keeping with modern fiction, darker and less comfortable. It’s a rattling good read, and rather than the single climactic explosion as in the Oedipus Rex, there are many twists and turns before the deceptively quiet ending.
Natalie Haynes will be appearing at the Sherborne Literary Festival on Saturday 14 October at 7 pm.