The Book of Joan
Channelling Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin and J.G. Ballard, Lidia Yuknavitch brings us The Book Of Joan, a startling portrayal of humanity devolved and earth decimated by warfare, lack of resources and an elite class who live on CIEL - a sub-orbital craft constructed from abandoned space stations. Here we meet Christine, living, if you can call it that, under the control of dictator Jean de Men. Christine is a narrator who scribes stories by burning them into flesh, her own and others'. The story she burns into her own is the Book of Joan, telling of Joan, the warrior who led the battle against Jean de Men and died heroically at the stake. On CIEL and on earth (where small clans of humans exist) there is an obsession with the body and the flesh. On CIEL they graft flesh and parade themselves ritualistically; on earth, they hark back to ritual stories of times before the geo-catastrophe.
Joan is a martyr, a warrior girl who at sixteen leads an army against the mighty forces of General Jean de Men. Joan at ten enters the forest, a wild ancient forest in France, and has an encounter with nature that changes her, giving her powers one with the natural environment and against the destructive impulses of humanity. A blue light glows from within her from her temple and she quickly becomes a symbol of resistance and rebellion. Her constant dream is of a planet on fire, of humans warring with each other until they are dehumanised, and the choice she makes at sixteen is devastating. Is she a martyr or has she martyred her people? Captured by the ruling powers and tied to the stake to be burnt alive, she is given iconic status and becomes the story by which rebels defy the elite, ritualised within this new world order. Humanity is dying out - physical changes include the loss of hair, skin pigmentation and genitalia. On CIEL the physical appearance of the inhabitants is startling - they are porcelain white, smooth-skinned - hairless - decorated by obscene skin grafts and some by words burnt into their flesh - a ritual that keeps stories alive through pain and precision.
The geo-catastrophe on earth has left those that remain with few resources and a mistrust of their fellows. Most live in isolated clans underground, and as we see this world only through the eyes of Joan and her mate, Leone, we know only as much as they do - the odd person they meet or any who seek them out, and vague rumours of others. The world in 2049 is a blend of medieval practices and technology. CIEL draws what little resources are left from the earth through networks of tendril-like connections and has technology on its craft to stop it falling into the sun. At the heart of this novel is a fierce battle of morals. Jean de Men wants to draw Joan into his lair, into his reproduction laboratory, to harvest her for his own repopulation programme. He is mad and powerful. Christine, the narrator, driven by the desire to topple the overlord Jean de Men and by her obsession with Joan, wishes to raise Joan from myth through the power of words and thus create a rebellion on CIEL.
Lidia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan includes themes of reproduction, competition for resources and power, gender ambiguity and sexual obsession. These are common across several feminist fictions: Alderman’sThe Power, Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife and the revived The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Added to the dynamic plot is an intellectual layer - philosophical discussions about matter and the intertwining of history; the three main characters are drawn from French medieval personalities; warrior Jeanne d'Arc, early feminist authorChristine de Pizan and her nemesis, romantic poet and scholar Jean de Meun - and you have a compelling, strange and powerful book.
In the near future, world wars have transformed the earth into a battleground. Fleeing the unending violence and the planet's now-radioactive surface, humans have regrouped to a mysterious platform known as CIEL, hovering over their erstwhile home. The changed world has turned evolution on its head: the surviving humans have become sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures floating in isolation, inscribing stories upon their skin. Out of the ranks of the endless wars rises Jean de Men, a charismatic and bloodthirsty cult leader who turns CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state. A group of rebels unite to dismantle his iron rule - galvanised by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her. A riveting tale of destruction and love found in the direst of places, Lidia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan raises questions about what it means to be human, the fluidity of sex and gender, and the role of art as a means for survival. It's a genre-defying masterpiece that may very well rewire your brain.
Brilliant and incendiary . . . The Book of Joan has the same unflinching quality as earlier works by Josephine Saxton, Doris Lessing, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin and J.G. Ballard. Yet it's also radically new, full of maniacal invention and page-turning momentum . . . A rich, heady concoction, rippling with provocative ideas -- Jeff VanderMeer * * New York Times * * Radical, raw and inventive * * Esquire * * The Book of Joan is something new altogether . . . Kaleidoscopic, lyric . . . The Book of Joan shows off Yuknavitch's imagination and her gift for crafting sonorous sentences * * Huffington Post * * A raucous celebration, a searing condemnation, and fiercely imaginative retelling of Joan of Arc's transcendent life -- Roxane Gay Yuknavitch will draw you into the future * * ELLE * * As ferociously intelligent as it is heart-wrenchingly humane, as generous as it is relentless, as irresistible as it is important . . . Genius -- Cheryl Strayed All my youth I gloried in the wild, exulting, rollercoaster prose and questing narratives of Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac, but cringed at the misogyny; couldn't we have the former without the latter? We can, because: Lidia Yuknavitch. Buckle your seat belts; it's gonna be a wild feminist ride -- Rebecca Solnit With her verve and bold imagination, she's earned the throne left empty since the death of David Foster Wallace -- Chuck Palahniuk While delivering an entirely new world and also putting forth a powerful treatise on the way we live now, The Book of Joan is one of those dystopian novels that you can't help thinking might be too eerily real to be just fiction * * Newsweek * * Now is a fine time for tales of women's resistance, which, above all else, is what The Book of Joan has on offer . . . This world's Joan is scarred and strong, a fully adult Katniss Everdeen with bigger guns * * Los Angeles Review of Books * *
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the National Bestselling novel The Small Backs of Children (winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award's Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and the Reader's Choice Award), the novel Dora: A Headcase, and three books of short fiction. Her widely acclaimed memoir, The Chronology of Water, was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader's Choice. Lidia received her doctorate in Literature from the University of Oregon. She lives and teaches in Oregon with her husband Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son, Miles. She is a very good swimmer.@LidiaYuknavitch