This review contains spoilers.
The Children of Jocasta is a new version of both Oedipus the King and Antigone – chapters alternate between the two stories- told from the point of view of two usually overlooked characters, Jocasta and Ismene. Through their eyes, Natalie Haynes presents the usual protagonists in a different light, but also expands the timeframe of the two stories, starting them long before the cataclysmic events that set the tragedies in motion (the murder of Laius in the case of Oedipus the King, and the deaths of Polynices and Eteocles in the case of Antigone). Because it is a novel, The Children of Jocasta can also go into much more narrative detail than the original plays: we accompany Jocasta as she first becomes queen, and share Ismene’s life as the youngest of a cursed royal family. Really, with its alternative points of view and filling in of narrative blanks, the book feels like (very good and well-researched) fanfiction.
Probably because I consider myself a bit of an Oedipus fan. The Oedipus myth was one of the highlights of my high school curriculum, one which I happily explored further in my own time. I was so taken with both Oedipus the King and Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone that I added all of Sophocles’ plays, Henry Bauchau’s psychoanalytic novels Antigone and Oedipus on the Road, and Jean Cocteau’s delightful The Infernal Machine to my final year’s reading load. Picking up The Children of Jocasta felt like re-establishing an old continuity. Unfortunately, however, the novel never really measured up to the original. More importantly, it didn’t measure up to the version of the myth that still gives me chills: Antigone, the 1944 French play by Jean Anouilh. It’s been decades since I last read it, but I can still feel the heat of Antigone’s war with her uncle Creon, her relentlessness in defending what she believes is right against inflexible patriarchal rule. She does not stop; she does not bend. “Nevertheless, she persisted” – that’s my Antigone. But she wasn’t just inspiring. She was human in the most reliable way: the youngest, the ugly duckling, the one who sits in a corner hugging her knees during royal balls. To my emo teenager’s mind, she was miserable and determined to die, but also hell-bent on humiliating her oppressor before she left. I was in awe.
Haynes takes her Antigone in a very different direction, but doesn’t completely do away with the traits Anouilh had given her. In great part, she transfers them to her protagonist, Ismene, who thus inherits the physical plainness, bravery, and independent thinking. It is also her who performs the forbidden task in the end. And yet, for the myth to keep existing, it must be Antigone who confronts her uncle Creon, while Ismene sits in silence. The result is an Ismene who has the form of Anouilh’s Antigone, but none of the fire. As for Antigone herself, she is nothing but her words, just petulance and self-interest. The characterisation of the two sisters gets diluted, and so does the young girl’s rebellion that’s so dear to my heart. It makes me wonder why Haynes chose to put the spotlight on Ismene. Usually, I’m all for changing the point of view character, as it amounts to rooting for the little guy. This is certainly true of the other half of the novel, the re-telling of Oedipus’ story as Jocasta’s. But if the re-shuffle leads to the weakening of both the old protagonist and the new, then what’s the point?
I fear it was done just for the sake of following a postmodern trend. Not only does Haynes shake many of our certainties about the story – the part people played in certain acts, their reasons for doing so-, but she also puts the very premise of the myth, Oedipus’s filial connection to Jocasta, into question. Until now, it was religious faith that sustained the revelations about Oedipus’ origins, through the intervention of the Oracle and the wise Tiresias. In this version, Tiresias become Teresa, a character defined early on by her duplicity. As for the Oracle, he is presented as a quack on which Teresa relies to keep Jocasta weak and docile. Jocasta’s eventual rejection of the Oracle is not innocent; it stands for the book’s rejection of certainty. With the blood connection reduced to a cruel rumour, fate loses its hold. Tragedy becomes drama. The infernal machine jams. What we are left with is a sort of reminder that nothing is for certain, and that there is always another side to the story. Clever? Perhaps. But certainly not riveting.
In isolation, this is a pleasant book by an author who is palpably fascinated by her subject matter. Her writing is innocuous, and devoted to the ancient characters and settings she takes on (I especially enjoyed the importance given to the palace, and the relevance of the different courtyards to the action taking place). When you compare it to some of its ancestors, however, it becomes a bit lacklustre.
You can purchase The Children of Jocasta from Foyles.