The Book of Joan

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book cover artWhen I first heard about The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch at the end of last year I was super excited to read it. I had a long wait for it to be published, for my library to order and catalog it, and for it to land on the hold shelf for me. The wait was totally worth it!

The Book of Joan is a grand thinker of a science fiction novel. You could call it apocalyptic and dystopian only the end holds the promise of renewal not to the world that was but to a new world, strange and different.

It is the story of Joan who, as a young girl, is out in the forest playing with her brother, touches a tree and is filled with blue lightening. She has a vision of the future of the world, she hears voices, and ever after she has a blue light that shimmers next to her right eye. Oh, and she learns she can control matter, like move the earth and rocks and make things explode, that sort of thing.

The future turns out to be one of war after war. Children are cheap and fearless fighters and Joan and her brother become soldiers. With her visions and abilities, Joan becomes a hero, has a following, and yes, is burned at the stake by the powers that be because she is a threat. If you are thinking Joan of Arc, you should. But this is not a retelling, Joan of Dirt is her own story but because of the nature of stories there is resonance.

This is also a story about Christine Pizan. Not that Christine Pizan, but again, resonance. Because our Christine is a writer. Only in this future in which the world has been destroyed and the wealthy and worthy have moved to a space station refuge, Christine writes stories on people’s skin. These stories are called grafts and they are not written in ink like a tattoo, but burned into the skin, creating a text made of scars. The very wealthy are covered head to toe in grafts and some have even become palimpsests of sorts with new grafts burned on top of old grafts. Christine is not rich, but she is one of the best graft artists, one of the best storytellers, and so she finds herself on the space station.

The station is called CIEL and the man in charge is Jean de Men. It is he who burned Joan at the stake. Jean is a man of our times. He was made famous by reality TV, he cashed in on the fame, became more than a celebrity, he eventually became a leader. Does this sound familiar?

People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen. If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life. And then, in a blink of an eye, in a moment of danger, a figure who takes power from our weak desires and failures emerges like a rib from sand […] How stupidly we believe in our petty evolutions. Yet another case of something shiny that entertained us and then devoured us. We consume and become exactly what we create. In all times.

Joan, it turns out did not burn at the stake. She was saved by her companion Leone. And so the book ends in an epic showdown between Jean de Men and Joan of Dirt with the fate of humanity and the entire existence of the Earth hanging in the balance.

This is a novel with a great story that is full of ideas and at the same time one of the most embodied books I have ever read. By embodied I mean the book is all about bodies, what they are made of, what they can do, what we do to them, what they represent:

The body is a real place. A territory as vast as Earth.

It is a story about what happens to a world that forgets we are bodies, bodies that are not somehow above the laws of nature

We are not more than the animals we made extinct. We are not above the organic life we destroyed. We are of it.

Those who have escaped the ruined Earth to live on CIEL find their bodies mutating into to something no longer truly human. They lose their reproductive organs becoming essentially sexless, their skin turns an almost translucent white and everyone loses all their hair.

The book is as much about stories as it is about bodies. Bodies are necessary to stories, bodies tell stories

I’ve been thinking about how our desires and fears manifest in our bodies, and how our bodies, carrying these stories, resist the narratives our culture places on top of us, starting the moment we are born. It’s our idiotic minds that overwrite everything. But the body has a point of view. It keeps its secrets. Makes its own stories. By any means necessary.

I could go on and on about this book, I liked it so much. The Book of Joan is also one of those books that invites re-reading with the promise of more details and discoveries once you know how all the pieces fit together. It is not a light and fluffy book, it is not an everything will be okay in the end book, it is not a book that hates humanity and thinks we deserve to be destroyed. Instead, it makes this suggestion:

I decided you meant that Earth carried other meanings than the ones we used to make culture. That we’d misinterpreted ourselves and taken the story in the wrong directions.

It is a book that leaves you thinking and wondering. What other meanings can we make? What new stories can we tell? What direction do we want those stories to take us?