NATALIE HAYNES The Children of Jocasta. Reviewed by Sally Nimon
This 21st-century novel re-imagines the ancient Greek story of the boy who married his mother.
Everybody knows the story. Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Boy and Girl have son. Son grows up. Son kills Boy. Son marries Girl. Son and Girl discover Horrible Truth. No one Lives Happily Ever After.
The Oedipus myth is probably one of the best known survivors from classical Greece. In its original form, it is one of the many tales from the ancient world that warns of the hopelessness of resisting your fate. What the gods have willed, no mortal has the power to change. Oedipus is, quite literally, born to commit patricide and incest, and in exquisite dramatic irony, it is the very attempt by his parents to avert this outcome that seals all their fates. By abandoning him as a baby, hoping he will die and thus avoid the Oracle’s prophecy, they instead set off a chain of events that results in everyone’s downfall.
To a modern, western sensibility this seems ridiculously unfair. In 21st-century Australia we view our world through the lens of individuality, each of us the author of our own narratives. But the ancient world was a very different place, where choice was the privilege of only a select few, and the line between a prosperous life and a harsh one rested on circumstance well beyond individual control. This gap can sometimes be difficult for modern readers to bridge, and this is exactly what Haynes sets out to do – to re-imagine the Oedipus story in a way that retains all the familiar elements while providing an interpretation more credible to a modern sensibility than it simply being the will of the gods.
There are no interfering deities here, no divine messengers, no revelations hidden in burning bushes. The gods are sometimes spoken of, but remain entirely absent. Sphinxes do appear, and Oedipus does solve their riddle, but they are revealed to have a much more mundane nature than the mythical beasts we might have expected.
Jocasta, mother and wife of Oedipus, is no mere shadow but a flesh and blood woman, forced into a sham marriage at the age of 15 to provide an absent husband with an heir that it turns out he doesn’t even want. When told her baby boy was born dead she has no reason to question this, falling instead into a deep grief. Though she follows the accepted wisdom and consults the divine Oracle, she discovers that the gods either don’t exist or don’t care about the heartache of a bereaved mother.
‘Oracles do not always speak the truth,’ she ultimately realises. ‘They’re just words, interpreted by people … to say what you want them to say. They predict nothing, guarantee nothing.’
In Haynes’s world, unlike that of the original story, it isn’t the gods who cause pain and suffering. Rather, it is the inevitable ambiguities and uncertainties that arise from being alive, and the doubts and panic these cause. Did Jocasta’s son really die, or does he return in the form of the handsome stranger, Oedipus, to sweep her off her feet and to her ultimate destruction? Are the waves of plague that besiege the city natural phenomena that cannot be stopped, or are they divine retribution for incest, however unintentional? If the sister of a slain brother defies the command of her king and sneaks away to bury him, is it a triumph of morality over tyranny or is she guilty of a terrible crime? In the ancient version the answers were clear, but Haynes knows that to us they are anything but. Jocasta may well have married her long-lost son, but where does the guilt lie if the act was done unknowingly? And when Ismene (rather than Antigone in this version), sneaks out of the palace to bury her brother Eteocles, is she right to do so? Or is she stupid to risk her own life for the sake of a corpse that even she can see is ‘not a man, not my brother, not any more. It was just a thing, a thing I needed to place in the ground’.
It’s not easy to find a new way to retell a story that is as old as western civilisation, but Haynes does a fine job. The Children of Jocasta pulls you in and keeps you tied to a narrative you already know, pushing through to an outcome that was determined millennia before you were born. The classical myths continue to appeal because, at their core, they are stories about being human – how we live, how we make mistakes, how we suffer the consequences and we die, regardless of whether the path to that end takes a comic or a tragic turn. Though we all know how Jocasta’s story will end, it doesn’t stop us wanting to live through it with her one more time. Especially when told by as capable a storyteller as Haynes proves herself to be.
Natalie Haynes The Children of Jocasta Mantle 2017 PB 336pp $29.99
Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.
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