The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

I mean to give myself two birthday presents before I’m forced to leave this existence and turn to dust and energy. The first is a recorded history. Oh, I know, there’s a good chance this won’t attract the epic attention I am shooting for. On the other hand, smaller spectacles have moved epochs. And anyway, I’ve got that gnawing human compulsion to tell what happened.

The second present is a more physical lesson. I am an expert at skin grafting, the new form of storytelling. I intend to leave the wealth of my knowledge and skill behind. And the last of my grafts I intend to be a masterwork.

2049. Christine Pizan lives on CIEL, a free-floating space station which siphons resources from the ravaged, dying Earth below. At 49, Christine is a year from the time when residents of CIEL die to make room for others; she’s determined she’s going out in spectacular fashion.

CIEL’s leader is Jean de Men. He’s risen from self-help guru to author to TV star to military leader. I have no idea who Yuknavitch was thinking of when she gave Pizan the line ‘We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.’

Jean de Men wrote CIEL’s most famous narrative graft, a romance. The irony of this being that CIEL’s inhabitants are mostly genderless and without genitalia. Humans have devolved.

It was a wish like the moth’s wish for flame. It was a wish to fuck the sun. To be burned alive inside a story where our bodies could still want and do what bodies want to do.

Grafting, creating skin stories, is the latest entertainment and a way of telling someone’s worth and social class. It’s how Christine earns a living. It’s also how she’s waged war against Jean de Men. In his stories, ‘all the women […] demanded to be raped’. In hers she re-creates the story of people’s bodies ‘as desiring abysses, creation and destruction’. Her work has inspired women to reclaim their bodies, their space, themselves.

A new philosophy took hold and pulsed: the idea that men and women – or the distinction between men and women – was radically and forever dead.

Christine’s partner-in-crime is her oldest friend and the love of her life, Trinculo. Trinculo is an engineer, inventor and illustrator, the person who designed and engineered CIEL. When we meet him, he’s wearing a belt garnered with vibrating appendages. The two main crimes on CIEL? Any acts that resemble the act or idea of sex and anything other than blind allegiance to Joan of Dirt’s official death story, the one where she was burnt at the stake. Clearly Trinculo’s taking charge of breaking the first law. The second? Christine’s last graft, her masterwork, the story she’s going to tell the reader, is the true story of Joan.

In a reworked version of the story of Joan of Arc, told by Christine de Pizan, Yuknavitch considers the damage we’re doing to Earth and to humanity. How we’ve made ourselves more important than the universe because we can’t cope with the idea that we’re a small, insignificant part of it. She looks at our need to take and hold onto power and the myriad ways in which women are belittled in order for this to happen.

The voice and tone of the novel is fierce from beginning to end. It is also very funny in parts. Trinculo, in particular, pertains to play the part of the joker, quoting insults from a favourite childhood app which generated medieval insults.

The Book of Joan is furious, eloquent and inventive. The best feminist dystopia since The Power and an early contender for one of my books of the year.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

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