The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes. Pub 2018
After that last book I read, I was hoping for a compelling page-turner, and was not disappointed with this book. A retelling of the Oedipus myth (spoiler alert: reading that information will be a spoiler for this book) from the perspectives of two minor characters from that story, this book is reminiscent of the novels of Madeline Miller (esp. Circe) in giving us a better picture into the day-to-day and backstory of the characters around the more commonly known tragic heroes. Also, in both cases, the authors take much of the shine off of the heroes, bringing them down to earth while elevating the background characters to create more textured and complex stories.
Haynes interweaves the stories of Jocasta (wife of Oedipus and more spoiler) and Ismene (her daughter and even more spoiler) enabling the telling of a much longer period of history (although, since people did not typically live that long in those days, the period is only ~70 years even with the backwards-and-forwards mechanism). The Ismene storyline is the more interesting, perhaps because the mythical story is less familiar but also due to the complex conspiracies and number of characters included. In the Jocasta story, the Oedipus myth is told in a slow unfolding way, leading to the ending you’d anticipate if you know the myth, but with some interesting twists that highlight how a fairly common tragedy can become mythical if spun correctly.
While not as well written as Circe, the stories are interesting and definitely have the page-turner quality I was hoping for. More interesting are the inadvertent reflections of the modern world in the political intrigues, propaganda, and plague. The city of Thebes (the setting for the stories, which is very well described by Haynes, you can almost feel the heat and the dust) is beset by a plague that they call The Reckoning, an Ebola-like illness that sweeps through the city several times in the story. The actions taken by the rulers are more modern that could be realistic in those days – could the concept “quarantine” even be conceived then? could anyone really have made the direct connection between sanitation and disease? But they are so familiar in our current Great Sickness, and suffer the same rebellion and disdain and anger of the citizens who seal their own fates by defying the orders, that the story becomes a bit more realistic through that familiarity. Ditto the political shenanigans and intrigues, reflecting the mean-spirited diatribes so common today, and the gossip and rumours that take the place of news but reflect the tabloid-style journalism in today’s media.
I enjoyed this book very much, and will seek out others by Haynes at some point (although having read this one, she will tick many fewer book club boxes for me going forward this year).
Fate – sending to a friend.