The Book of Joan…
About the 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—galvanized by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her and communes with the earth. When de Men and his armies turn Joan into a martyr, the consequences are astonishing. And no one—not the rebels, Jean de Men, or even Joan herself—can foresee the way her story and unique gift will forge the destiny of an entire world for generations.
A riveting tale of destruction and love found in direst of places—even at the extreme end of post-human experience—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 means for survival.
Speculative fiction is not a genre that I have a firm relationship with. I find it very hit and miss, but every so often I like to challenge myself, break out of my reading norms, and there really is nothing like a spec fic novel for doing this.
The Joan of Arc aspect of The Book of Joan intrigued me, and I have to say, Lidia Yuknavitch has pulled this off incredibly well. This young eco-terrorist with supernatural powers connecting her with the earth was quite a character, no easy feat for an author to create and sustain. And it was the parts featuring Joan that I enjoyed most about this novel. They were more accessible for me in terms of imagination and they also provided a lot of clarity on the futuristic scenes. These parts about Joan were more dystopian, rather than science fiction, which would account for my inclination towards them. I don’t mind a bit of dystopian but I always struggle to wrap my head around science fiction.
It was quite a challenge to envisage Lidia’s futuristic humans in terms of physical appearance, and yet I could still see it, if that makes any sense. I’m just not too sure if I was seeing it right! Lidia is very good at creating strong visual imagery and quite complex descriptions were broken down into manageable visual chunks, which I very much appreciated, given my limited science fiction imagination. There seemed to be so much focus on genitalia and sex, too much so, and it got to the point where I was skimming these futuristic scenes because they became rather repetitive. In some ways I can see where Lidia was going with this. The concept of gender becoming fluid, thus neutralising conflict with sexual origins and creating a level playing field. And the loss of reproduction; it’s greater implications. I think. Because that’s the thing with this novel. I was never really sure if I was interpreting everything as it was intended. Maybe that’s the point too, that it’s all open to interpretation and reflection. One thing in particular I really liked was the notion of art as resistance. When stripped of everything and neutralised, I was very taken with the idea that a person would graft words and images onto their self by means of expression and resistance. A small measure of control over one’s own self taken back.
The core message of this novel is clear. The world has an expiry date. As humans, we are the major players in the setting of this date. The Book of Joan is a cautionary tale, and as is the way with most dystopian fiction, it’s a view of the present plus a few decades through a different prism. Even after destroying the earth and making it uninhabitable, humans set themselves up in space and siphon the remaining resources from earth up into CIEL via skylines. The mutated children left on earth are captured and converted into fossil fuels. Humans devolve and regress, begin eating each other and survival truly is left to only the fittest – or the richest – before eventually all emerging as blank slates, stripped of their reproductive capabilities and all of the usual physical characteristics that previously provided human differentiation. Faced with imminent extinction, a mad grab for reproduction ensues, women being experimented on, eviserated, their bodies intended purely for breeding a new race. It’s horrifying but also with shades of brilliance. The vision displayed by Lidia Yuknavitch within the Book of Joan is quite extraordinary. There are parts I fully appreciated and parts I could have done without, but overall, it’s an impressive read. Challenging, most definitely, but worth it in the end.
Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Book of Joan for review.
About the Author:
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the National Bestselling novels The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction as well as the Reader’s Choice Award, and the novel Dora: A Headcase, 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. Her nonfiction book based on her TED Talk, The Misfit’s Manifesto, is forthcoming from TED Books.
She founded the workshop series Corporeal Writing in Portland Oregon, where she teaches both in person and online. She received her doctorate in Literature from the University of Oregon. She lives in Oregon with her husband Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son, Miles. She is a very good swimmer.