My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Length: 336 pages
Release date: 4 May 2017
My siblings and I have grown up in a cursed house, children of cursed parents . . .
Jocasta is just fifteen when she is told that she must marry the King of Thebes, an old man she has never met. Her life has never been her own, and nor will it be, unless she outlives her strange, absent husband.
Ismene is the same age when she is attacked in the palace she calls home. Since the day of her parents’ tragic deaths a decade earlier, she has always longed to feel safe with the family she still has. But with a single act of violence, all that is about to change.
With the turn of these two events, a tragedy is set in motion. But not as you know it.
“But no one will remember me, the youngest daughter. I don’t matter, do I?”
In Sophocles’s tragedies, Jocasta and Ismene don’t matter. The Children of Jocasta aims to redeem these invisible women and reframe their tales so that not only do they matter, they are the focus of a story that has traditionally spotlighted the epic tragedies of Oedipus, Creon and Antigone and eschewed the subtlety of their less assertive family members.
To some extent, this book succeeds. I can’t deny that Natalie Haynes certainly knows how to write. Here’s where I plead “not for me” in full honesty–The Children of Jocasta is unashamedly literature, but whether it’s a novel is another matter. Thanks to many abrupt time skips, where years pass in the blink of an eye, the book’s disjointedness feels less like a novel than a collection of vignettes. They are wonderful vignettes, revelatory on their own, but put together there is the sense that something vital is missing.
Mythology took the ordinary and retold it as divine. In her retelling, Natalie Haynes takes the myth and strips it back down to the ordinary. This isn’t Madeline Miller’s magical realism; this is a series of events that might actually have happened in history to inspire Sophocles’s tragedies. There’s a grain of truth to many legends, and this is that original grain of truth as envisioned by Haynes. She distills Oedipus Rex and Antigone into an intimate family affair, as bereft of grand gestures as magical fabrications, both of which were present in Sophocles’s tragedies. Gone is the Seven Against Thebes, the civil war between Polyneices and Eteocles. In its place is a private brotherly quarrel gone wrong. Similarly dismissed is Jocasta’s infamous marriage to her son, which is recast as a mere rumour overblown by a discontent populace.
The realism would be a nice touch if it wasn’t accompanied by the plodding pace that characterises The Children of Jocasta. There are beautiful passages, but as a whole they’re separated by enough boring sections that it would be easier to DNF than to continue reading to reach those passages. The first half, especially the opening chapters, are especially dull, filled with long paragraphs of exposition and introspection and little dialogue or action. Considering that Haynes writes exquisite dialogue, it’s a shame we get so little of it. The latter half of the book becomes more interesting, and the long setup finally pays off–but not enough to compensate for the pages and pages of uneventful, winding exposition.
The slow pace and narrative structure create two absences that make this book much less enjoyable than it could have been: lack of suspense, and lack of character development. The main source of suspense, the mystery behind Jocasta and Oedipus’s deaths, is sorely underwhelming. Thanks to the chapters alternating between Jocasta and Isy’s POVs, the time and legacy of the tragedy is already known; the only suspense is in discovering how it unfolds. Ismene’s story is more intriguing, but takes a significant portion of the book to warm up.
Lack of character development is particularly noticeable. Even though Jocasta speaks in third person and Ismene in first, they sound exactly the same. The voices of Jocasta at different ages also blend together, and there’s not much to distinguish 15-year-old Jocasta from 40-year-old Jocasta from Ismene. Their lack of personality partially arises from their passive roles: Although The Children of Jocasta fleshes out Jocasta and Ismene more than Sophocles does, they are still largely passive characters reacting to circumstances beyond their control. Both women shine in the moments that they take an active role (Jocasta in seizing control after Laius’s death and Ismene, not Antigone, burying her brother are the best examples), but these moments are few and far in between.
Ironically, the most compelling characters in The Children of Jocasta come to be Creon and Antigone. Even in a book whose main purpose is to breathe life into two typically sidelined characters, the original stars manage to steal the show. I wonder if it isn’t impossible to make Jocasta and Ismene captivating protagonists without fundamentally changing their characters. Haynes gives Jocasta agency and her overlooked child passion, and in the end it’s still not enough to rescue them from the shadows of Sophocles’s leads.