Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan is indescribable, and not because of its ability to render the reader speechless. Attempting to understand the plot is like getting blood from a stone. Yuknavitch seems to have been unable to decide what she wanted The Book of Joan to be, ultimately leaving the reader unsettled, creating confusions that remain unresolved even at the end of the novel.
The book is a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, meaning that despite its setting in a post-apocalyptic future, its characters are all drawn from medieval French history. In this universe, Joan of Arc is reimagined as the earth-bending ‘eco-terrorist’ Joan of Dirt. The antagonist, misogynistic dictator Jean de Men, is a pastiche of the author Jean de Meun, and our leading lady who grafts Joan’s story onto her very skin represents de Meun’s critic Christine de Pizan. They live in a space station orbiting a dying Earth, part of a devolved human race incapable of reproduction. Yuknavitch seems to be asking the reader to suspend their disbelief just long enough to accept that any of this is in some way coherent. The Book of Joan feels like too many ideas thrown together, and the combinations don’t make any sense.
At the risk of sounding prudish, an appropriate way to describe this novel would be vulgar. In a dystopian future where no-one has any reproductive organs and sex is thus impossible, all of the characters are obsessed with desire – a fact which contributes literally nothing to the overarching plot. Perhaps this was a bid to be daring; however, Yuknavitch’s preoccupations with sadomasochism and violence are instead overly graphic, smutty and uncomfortable to read. This might be excusable if it did not facilitate scenes which are frankly disgusting. I refer in particular to one grotesque description of Jean de Men trying to surgically create a woman’s lost reproductive system and, in frustration, ripping out her bioengineered ovaries when they prove to be useless. There is never a break from intense, brutal suffering; page after page, the reader witnesses inhumane and often sexual torture. This unrelenting brutality ultimately makes the novel distressing to read while far outweighing any merit it may have otherwise been perceived to have.
Furthermore, in a world where all traces of sex have been lost, including any outward indicator of whether a person is male or female, The Book of Joan is excellently positioned to give insight into debates about gender. Unfortunately, it fails to comment on such issues, making little effort to question the assumption that having had a uterus before devolving made one a woman. At the same time, it manages to turn a race of supposedly asexual, agendered beings into rampant carnal creatures, showing little to no consideration for the real-life interactions between sex and gender.
Although Yuknavitch’s writing is extremely poetic – and there is no doubt that this novel is written beautifully – that unfortunately is not enough to transform The Book of Joan into a good novel. It tries to accomplish too much, ultimately achieving very little: a shame, given Yuknavitch’s evident prowess when it comes to manipulating language.
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.