I don’t know anything about Classics, really. I did learn about Greek myths and Legends when I was at primary school, and I think we had a big Dorling Kindersley book on them when my sister and I were little, but I must have mostly looked at the illustrations because all I really remember are these images of muscular, beardy men in what I think are called chitons(?).
Because of this, I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to books based on classical stories, but after seeing Jean of the YouTube channel Bookish Thoughts talk about this one, and then spotting it in the proofs pile at work, I decided to try this one out. It turned out to be a great decision, and I’m now really keen to pick up some more classical retellings (Madeleine Miller’s Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles, is currently at the top of my list).
This is a look at the myths of Oedipus and Antigone through the eyes of two of the more neglected characters from the original plays: Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife/mother, and Ismene, their younger daughter and Antigone’s sister. The chapters alternate between their two perspectives (although, oddly, Ismene is in first person while Jocasta is in third, a decision which I can’t work out the reason for, although I don’t think it detracts in any way). I have to say, I did at times find the alternating perspectives and particularly the fact that they are narrating from different points in time a little frustrating. Particularly in the beginning of the novel, I much preferred the Jocasta chapters, and was mildly irritated each time I was removed from her story. However, as the book went on I found Ismene increasingly engaging.
I particularly loved the way she removes the mythological elements from the story. The Sphinx who terrorises the hills outside Thebes is transformed into a band of robbers and highwaymen, while the characters are taken down from their mythological pedestals to become human, fallible and relatable. They refer to the mythical origins of their city with scepticism, and doubt the truth of prophecies even as they look to the Gods for answers.
While the book focuses in on the thoughts and motivations of two women who are sidelined in the original plays (Haynes includes an afterword which was extremely helpful in understanding how her novel relates to the source material), giving them rich inner lives and helping us understand the all-consuming grief they both experience, this is still an action packed story. While a novel which focused purely on their personal grief might be grim and depressing, this, thanks to the plot elements necessitated by the original plays, is still a page turner. Although, to be fair, the plot is still bloody grim.