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Friday, August 18, 2017

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

When a book is difficult for me to review, I'm always tempted not to review it at all.  Then I think that I got this one for free from Edelweiss.  I'm very late with my review, but I did request it with enthusiasm for a futuristic Joan of Arc. Last year I loved the alternate history Khazar Joan of Arc in The Book of Esther by Emily Barton  which I reviewed here .  Yet what happens when I read The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, and I find that I'm queasy and doubtful about my responses?  So let's see if I can figure out why I'm having these problems by writing this review.


A part of my unease is that this is an extremely dark dystopia starring a dictator who revels in violence and cruelty.  Yuknavitch doesn't shove the torture, butchery and destruction off-stage.  She wants us to experience every horrific detail. She shows how it impacts his victims.  I thought that Yuknavitch's dictator owed a great deal to the work of the Marquis de Sade-- particularly De Sade's idea of a utopia,  The 120 Days of Sodom.

 Dystopian fiction is intended as a warning. It portrays what will happen "if this goes on".  "If this goes on" is a central impulse that drives all of science fiction.   Yet readers can be forgiven if they feel that living in what seems like an embryonic dystopia is enough for us.  Musical satirist Tom Lehrer once sang "imagine Broadway melody of  1984".  I don't need to imagine it.   I've had  far too much dystopia lately.  I want some respite from the fear and the stress that pervades my current environment.

Then there's Yuknavitch's Joan who is no saint.   She's a young woman who's been hardened by surviving too much death and terror.   Through much of the book I wondered how much she had in common with the original Maid of Orleans.  It took a long while for me to warm up to this Joan.   I felt sick for all her losses, but I didn't really connect with her until fairly late in the narrative.

Yuknavitch questions the actions of the original Joan, the value of her goals and what she achieved. Since I live in the 21st century and not in the 15th  century as Joan of Arc did, I might be more sympathetic toward Yuknavitch's views if she hadn't made the decision to place her words inside the head of a medieval girl who simply wouldn't think in those terms about her mission.  It seemed totally anachronistic.   Joan of Arc speaks very eloquently for herself in the trial transcripts.   Yuknavitch's inauthentic voice of the original Joan lost me completely.  It was false to history.

This wasn't the only mis-step that I found in The Book of Joan.   There are also lengthy info dumps which I consider a lazy method of world building. Worse still, Yuknavitch broke into the narrative to deliver lectures containing her opinions about current social trends.   The issue is not whether I agree with her, but whether such overt didacticism is appropriate in a novel.   I prefer fiction that is more subtle.

 The ending of this novel did have a great deal of power.  It caused me to think that this potentially could have been a really good book if all the digressions had been removed.  So I guess I have come to a conclusion through the review process.   If I were grading The Book of Joan as a submitted assignment I would have said that it needs improvement.



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