The Children of Jocasta

Written by Natalie Haynes
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

Another group of girls break their silence in this brilliant adaptation of the Oedipus myth, told from the perspective of its female protagonists. Jocasta and her daughter Ismene have little to say in the classic adaptations by Homer and Sophocles, but they narrate their stories eloquently in this fine novel, providing the reader with intimate insight into the troubled lives of two generations of Theban women. In a city battered by plague, superstition, masculine ambition, wanton cruelty, and heat, irrational beliefs and mistaken assumptions about cause and effect besiege the inhabitants, and they seek supernatural explanations—a curse unleashed by the marriage between Jocasta and her supposed son Oedipus—for the pestilence afflicting their community, when a more likely reason, the contamination of the water source, might be the culprit. In the end, though, not social malaise, but personal hatred and the need for vengeance brings down the House of Thebes, ensuring that the name of Oedipus lives in infamy. Should one cite another name for the fall of a great civilization? Haynes seems to argue strongly for a new take on an ancient tragedy.

Following hard upon the heels of House of Names, Circe, and The Silence of the Girls, The Children of Jocasta represents a fascinating revamping of a classic tale. Protagonists talk—and think—surprisingly like modern people, while the gods are largely absent, and twists of fate appear to be the result of human contrivance rather than divine intervention. This is a novel firmly grounded in the physical world, as its language—sensuous, graphic, and violent—shouts aloud to the reader. The world-building, too, is marvelous—no one who has passed through the gates of Thebes as described here is likely ever to forget the experience. Highly recommended.