Sarah Ditum

A cursed house

Their violent myths are inspiring many contemporary novelists. Now Natalie Haynes rediscovers Ismene and Jocasta

A cursed house
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Children of Jocasta

Natalie Haynes

Mantle, pp. 352, £

Beyond the patricide and even the incest, the horror of the Oedipus myth lies in its insistence that our fates are not ours to change. And yet the story itself is far from unalterable, having been handed down in multiple variants — something that Natalie Haynes knows very well as a classics scholar. Now Haynes has written her own version of the tragedy, finding new space in the narrative by looking at it through the eyes of two characters neglected by antiquity: Oedipus’s mother/bride Jocasta and their youngest daughter Ismene.

We meet Jocasta as a clever 15-year-old girl married off to old King Laius of Thebes, in what her grasping father declares ‘the best deal of [his] life’. Laius, it turns out, has little interest in his new wife, or indeed any woman: she has been procured solely to produce an heir, and a female one, since Laius lives in cringing deference to a prophecy that any son of his will kill him. Jocasta’s miserable isolation as queen becomes something bleaker still when her baby turns out to be the wrong sex and is taken from her, supposedly stillborn.

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Alternating with the Jocasta narrative are chapters from the perspective of Ismene, also 15 at the outset, a tomboy, living in a palace fraught with the grief, shame and unresolved power struggles of all that’s contained in the Jocasta sections. ‘My siblings and I have grown up in a cursed house, children of cursed parents,’ says Ismene; and as if to prove how unfortunate the Theban monarchy is, the first thing that happens to her is a vicious assassination attempt. But while Jocasta is a passive figure (at least initially), Ismene is trying to master her own story, turning detective to find out who was behind the attack on her — and what designs they have on the crown of Thebes.

Some of this novel’s greatest satisfactions come from the way Haynes translates the story out of the mythic and into a naturalistic register of love, loss and ambition. The Sphinx is not a savage chimera menacing travellers, but a gang of half-wild mountain bandits; while the toddler Antigone is perpetually ‘wailing at some real or perceived injustice’, presaging the moral absolutism that is her part of the tragedy. The ancient city state comes vividly alive in Haynes’s hands, and canny deviations from the archetypal outline keep the suspense going. In The Children of Jocasta, Haynes has written a fine new story between the old lines.