The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes fantasy book reviewsThe Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes fantasy book reviewsThe Children of Jocasta (2018), by Natalie Haynes, does a nice job of shifting our view of some of the characters in the classic Oedipus tale, but was by the end a solid but somewhat disappointing read that felt its length and also felt too hemmed in by the tale as we all know it.

Haynes makes two good decisions early on. One is the structural choice to weave back and forth between two time periods. The first begins with a young Jocasta and moving forward in time through her marriage to the first Theban king, then her subsequent marriage to Oedipus and its eventual tragic end. The second timeline picks up some years after the deaths of Oedipus and Jocasta and follows the rest of the sad story involving their children. The other good decision is in the point of view, with the first timeline a limited third-person focused on Jocasta and the second timeline a first-person point of view from the perspective of Ismene, which is somewhat unexpected given the way she is usually portrayed in contrast to the vibrantly defiant Antigone of the Greek plays.

The POVs offer up some nice shifts, one obviously being a more female-focused story, not just in the direct plot elements of the tale but also in the focus on childbirth and parenting, which don’t get much page time in the classic tales. We also get to see Oedipus in a different light, sometimes flattering and sometimes not—he is at times, though Jocasta’s eyes brashly youthful, possessive, selfish, intelligent, devious, a doting father, and more. Creon, meanwhile, comes across quite differently in the two timelines, with Ismene slowly realizing just how manipulative and ambitious he is, just how far he’ll go to gain and maintain power. She also gives us a far less flattering view of her sister Antigone, whose admirable (to modern eyes especially) defiance of Creon’s authority in the name of familial love here comes across as short-sighted stubbornness that does more harm than good, self-centered, and, in the end, a means to a greater end making her far more like Creon than one would expect.

Characterization varies, with the two point of view characters mostly coming across in good detail. Ismene is bright, loves her family, is sharply rational, and sees the good and bad side of all her family members in insightful fashion. I thought the younger Jocasta came across most vividly. Her many-years grief over her lost child, and her shift to seeking aid from the Oracle didn’t feel wholly natural to her character, while her shift into strongly commanding queen felt too abrupt. The other best detailed character is Sophon, Jocasta’s doctor and friend and then Ismene’s tutor. The other characters felt much more thinly drawn unfortunately.

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes fantasy book reviewsThe plot takes some turns from the original story, and removes the more mythical elements, a choice that certainly works from a logical standpoint, but I’m not sure it helps from a narrative standpoint. Oedipus’ defeat of the Sphinx, for instance, felt too pat a way to do away with that fantastical element, as well as seeming a bit implausible, though I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers. Similarly, Jocasta’s suicide (I’m not giving spoiler warnings for millennia-old plotlines) makes sense but is a bit abrupt and while clearly sad it doesn’t land with the same impact as the original motivation. The prose, meanwhile, is sufficient to the story but overall read a bit flat.

While I enjoyed the beginning of the book, Jocasta’s chapter began to wear on me. Ismene was a much more engaging character to spend time with, but in her chapters some of the connections to the original tale started to feel a little perfunctory and/or hammered home, as when Jocasta and Creon discuss her pregnancy with Ismene:

“She moves. Just not as often as I’m used to. Antigone punched and kicked me every day—do you remember?”

[Creon] nodded. “It was driving you made. The gadfly you called her, because she stung you so often.”

“She’ll never be short of attention,” Jocasta agreed.

To be fair, Children of Jocasta was the third retelling of Greek myth I read in the span of two or three weeks, and it probably suffered in comparison to those two, particularly to House of Odysseus by Claire North, which was superb. That said, while this story opened well and is solid enough throughout, as noted at the start, overall, it disappointed by the end.

Published in November 2018. Thebes is a city in mourning, still reeling from a devastating plague that invaded every home and left the survivors devastated and fearful. This is the Thebes that Jocasta has known her entire life, a city ruled by a king—her husband-to-be. Jocasta struggles through this miserable marriage until she is unexpectedly widowed. Now free to choose her next husband, she selects the handsome, youthful Oedipus. When whispers emerge of an unbearable scandal, the very society that once lent Jocasta its support seems determined to destroy her. Ismene is a girl in mourning, longing for the golden days of her youth, days spent lolling in the courtyard garden, reading and reveling in her parents’ happiness and love. Now she is an orphan and the target of a murder plot, attacked within the very walls of the palace. As the deadly political competition swirls around her, she must uncover the root of the plot—and reveal the truth of the curse that has consumed her family. The novel is based on Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone, two of Classical Greece’s most compelling tragedies. Told in intersecting narratives, this reimagining of Sophocles’s classic plays brings life and voice to the women who were too often forced to the background of their own stories.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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