April 18, 2017
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Better, more eloquent people than me have reviewed Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest novel, The Book of Joan. It’s been covered by Publishers Weekly, NPR, and the New York Times. For just about any author you can think of, that’s a big deal; but with two critically acclaimed novels under her belt, besides Joan, in addition to a slew of short fiction and an award-winning memoir, the shock of being noticed could be wearing off for Ms. Yuknavitch.
I don’t tend to review the same books as the New York Times. Growing up, I avoided literary fiction, including the works assigned in school, because I felt like they had no plot. Nothing ever happened, it was all just characters sitting around in cornfields of symbolism, thinking about life. I’ve worked to shed that notion ever since, but even though I’ve read some amazing literary fiction in the past few years, I still instinctively grimace at the thought of it.
The Book of Joan is literary speculative fiction (dare I call it dystopian sci-fi, or is that too “genre”?). I haven’t read Yuknavitch’s other work, but I would assume most of it is literary. Literary fiction isn’t a category you can arbitrarily assign to a novel, it’s a way of writing. To me, it’s a way of approaching story and character, and even word choice. When I say Yuknavitch’s writing is literary, I mean that she writes beautifully and eloquently. Her words culminating in paragraphs that are rich in similes that evoke the senses and metaphors that hit so hard with the truth that the reaction is visceral. For a casual reader, or one that is easily distracted, this could easily be a strike against The Book of Joan. This isn’t a book to read with divided attention. As beautiful as the prose is, it can be dizzying, verging toward self-indulgent if you aren’t in the right state of mind to tackle something so heavy.
Given the current political climate, Joan hits hard. It takes place in the undefined-but-near future, featuring an Earth that has become largely uninhabitable in the wake of world war. Christine, one of two protagonists, lives aboard CIEL, a mysterious space-station-esque construction that hovers above the earth. She and the other humans on CIEL (who were, once upon a time, the world’s elite 1%) have evolved into hairless, sexless beings who express individuality by burning stories and images into their nearly translucent skin. When her best friend (and the unrequited love of her life), Trinculo, is sentenced to execution by CIEL’s leader, the enigmatic and egomaniacal Jean de Men, Christine, inspired by the story of the heretic eco-terrorist Joan of Dirt, begins to plan a revolution.
Joan of Dirt, meanwhile, is not quite as dead as the people of CIEL have been lead to believe. During the wars on Earth, the teenage Joan faced off against Jean de Men and was burnt at the stake for her “crimes”. Though she escaped with the help of her lover, Leone, the earth has been forever changed, and the humans that remain on its surface are under constant threat of extinction at the hands of de Men, who seeks to murder Joan, and all she represents, once and for all.
This futuristic retelling of Joan of Arc’s story hits home in some very upsetting ways, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to fans of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But if you’re looking for something lighthearted to take your mind off the world’s problems, The Book of Joan isn’t it.