What I’ve Been Reading…

I love books that rewrite old stories, re-telling them for a different time and culture. The last few years has seen a series of superb novels by female writers – Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls (2018), Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018) – which revisit classical myth, re-inserting a female perspective which is often missing from the original texts. In doing so, they follow in the footsteps of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005) and Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia (2009).Most recently, I’ve been reading Natalie Hayne’s Children of Jocasta (2017) which returns to the story of Oedipus, but tells it through the voices of two women who generally get little space in the traditional narratives: Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife; and Ismene, Oedipus’ daughter, whose story is usually overshadowed by that of her sister Antigone, who sacrifices herself to bury her rebel-brother, contrary to the edict of her king and uncle, Creon. Haynes’ novel interweaves two time periods – decades apart – through the narratives of Jocasta and Ismene. The supernatural elements of the myth – monsters, the role of the gods – are downplayed: the Sphinx is a band of brigands preying on travellers crossing the mountain pass to Thebes; Oedipus’ identification as Jocasta’s son stems from vindictive rumour, rather than the playing-out of fate. What was striking, reading this in a time of pandemic, was way in which Jocasta’s narrative – which is in turn the catalyst for what happens to her children – is shaped by plague. In the classical myth, and Sophocles’ play, Oedipus is driven to search for the previous king’s killer by an outbreak of pestilence, which is read as a sign of the gods’ displeasure. In Haynes’ novel, it is human responses to the disease which destroy lives and scar the survivors, into the next generation.

Stack of books

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