Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: ‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

Ever since my father introduced me to Star Wars as a child I have been in awe of the stories that Science-Fiction can tell, when done right. Similarly to Fantasy, it allows authors to discuss worldly problems in a foreign setting, highlighting their hypocrisy or methods. Once you mix Science-Fiction with Dystopia you have an incredibly powerful tool with which to reassess our world. It is with that in mind I started reading The Book of Joan and yet I still wasn't prepared for what was to come. Thanks to Canongate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 18/01/2018
Publisher: Canongate
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.
 Where to start? Often I finish reading a book and I know exactly what I want to say about this, whether it's positive or negative. Sometimes a review already forms in my head while I'm reading. But there are some books where, after the last page, I just stare ahead, attempting to sort out my thoughts. The Book of Joan is one of those latter ones. So I'm going to try and answer some basic questions first. Yes, it is a Science-Fiction book. Yes, it is a Dystopian book. No, it isn't a straightforward book. Yes, there is a high chance you'll be puzzled by it at times. Yes, it will be a worthwhile experience reading it. Yes, this is a book about love. Confused yet? Good, now join me as I try and make sense of my thoughts.

 The Book of Joan is set in the not too distant future where the Sun has given up and the world has been ravaged by geostorms and atomic warfare. Hovering above Earth is CIEL, a space platform in which Jean de Men has brought together some of the richest and most talented people to live under his rule. Radiation has significantly impacted the human bodies to the point where they're sexless and hardly recognisable. On Earth, struggling survivors fight a desolate climate and attacks from above. All of this is important and yet it is also very much background noise. At the heart of the novel are the stories of Joan, a child-warrior who fought Jean de Men for Earth's sake, and Christine de Pizan, floating in CIEL and inscribing stories upon her own and others' skin in the hope of retaining some humanity. With their stories Yuknavitch tries to explore what it is that makes us human, which drives define us above all, and where we have gone wrong. 

The novel swims with themes and philosophies. The Book of Joan is a cry for environmentalism, full of the pain of a dying and decaying world, an ode to the beauty of nature that is slowly being destroyed. Although quite obvious, it never felt too on the nose for me. Similarly, The Book of Joan is an exploration of love, sex and bodies. At times the book may be too crude in this exploration for some readers, as Yuknavitch unblinkingly analyses human impulses and bodies. But there is a beauty in how unrelenting she is, the way in which she shows Christine using her own body to tell stories, to feel, to express herself, by inscribing them upon her own skin. It may not be for everyone, it's not necessarily for me, but it is fascinating and definitely made me think about my own body and how I express myself with it, through it. It made me think about how we judge others by how they carry themselves, how they claim an identity through their bodies

The names of the two women at the heart of The Book of Joan give an indication of what inspired Yuknavitch to write this book. First there is Joan, clearly inspired by the story of Joan of Arc, the warrior-maiden inspired by God to defend her people and her country before she was declared a witch and burned. Then there is Christine de Pizan, an influential author in the 14th and 15th centuries. Although she initially wrote ballads, she engaged herself in literary debates and rose as a prominent voice on women's place in society. She also deeply criticised author Jean de Meun, author of La Roman de la Rose, another name you may recognise, for how he portrayed women. These two historical women, in their own way and in their own times, fought for the rights of women and their determination and strength is reflected in The Book of Joan. Whether it is through fighting or writing, it is important to have your voice heard. It was a fascinating take on these women, unlike any other "adaptation" I have ever read. And I think it did both a lot of justice.

Yuknavitch's writing in The Book of Joan is at times lyrical, at other times brutal. She switches between moments of intense beauty and heartbreak to horrible descriptions of warfare and horror. You can't have one without the other, she almost seems to say. From destruction comes creation, life from death. It is hard balance to strike but Yuknavitch strikes it beautifully. For me the novel took on something of an allegorical feel as I was reading it. On the one hand the plot is there and is what the book turns on, on the other hand  it is about much more than that. The characters could be stand-ins for philosophies or ideologies, the action an expression of our own history and potential future. THe Book of Joan will not be for everyone. One has to partially put one's expectations to the side and let the book do its thing. The bewildering, alien existence of those in CIEL, the struggle and hardship of those on Earth, it all comes together into a story that tries to convey the importance of love, of companionship, of understanding, of caring and of the power of standing up for what you believe in. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The Book of Joan will not be for everyone. It is both bleak and horrifying, as well as beautiful and heartening. It is a book you will question, struggle with, but (hopefully) emerge from with a different outlook on things, a new appreciation for our Earth and our selves. I'd recommend this to readers interested in Speculative Fiction and Dystopian Fiction.

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