The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch review – the future is medieval

Joan of Arc and Christine de Pizan are reimagined in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, in this compellingly ambitious examination of gender, semiotics and warfare

The Book of Joan opens with an epigraph from Doris Lessing: “We are all creatures of the stars”. It’s a quote from her 1979 science fiction novel Shikasta, about a world that has destroyed itself through environmental damage and war. At a moment when the end of life as we know it feels even more likely than it did in 1979, Lidia Yuknavitch follows Lessing in imagining in precise detail what might come after life on Earth. Her book has a similar level of ambition to Lessing’s novel, going deep into history at the same time as it dwells in the future. In this case, the history is medieval.

One premise of The Book of Joan is that the 21st century, for all its technological advances, has returned us to pre-modern levels of brutality and strife. There are children fighting once again; there are religious crusades; land is seized at will. Yuknavitch takes three real people from medieval France and reimagines them in a post-apocalyptic future. They are the romance poet Jean de Meun (author of part of The Romance of the Rose), his poetical adversary the proto-feminist writer Christine de Pizan, described by Simone de Beauvoir as the first woman to “take up her pen in defence of her sex”, and the girl warrior with apparently magical powers, Joan of Arc.

When the book opens, it’s 2049 and De Pizan is living semi-incarcerated in a panopticon on Ciel, a suborbital complex built from remnants of old space stations and located just above the Earth. Ciel is presided over by Jean de Men, a dictator who writes romances in his spare time. Although they have only been there for 35 years, Ciel’s inhabitants have undergone a rapid process of “devolution”. They have lost their hair, their skin pigmentation and, most crucially, their genitalia. They do not sweat and though they cry, the tears fall unseen because they have mutilated themselves by burning skin grafts on to their bodies and faces, obscuring the pathways from the eyes.

These skin grafts are at the heart of the book. In the face of a world that has become ever more virtual, Ciel’s inhabitants have come to believe fiercely in the power of art and of what is left of their bodies. They have taken to burning images and, most importantly, texts, on to their skin. Christine is the great grafter of the community; she has mastered the technique and learned to be impervious to the pain. Now, she knows that she has only a year to live (because of shortage of space, people here are killed at 50), so she begins her final masterwork. Where the original De Pizan wrote the first epic poem describing Joan of Arc, the modern Christine has taken it upon herself to write the story of Joan of Dirt, “the woman whose story broke the world”.

Milla Jovovich in Luc Besson’s 1999 film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.
Milla Jovovich in Luc Besson’s 1999 film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia/Gaumont Photograph: Allstar/COLUMBIA/GAUMONT

As told by Christine, by Joan herself and by the narrator (it’s not always clear who is narrating), Joan’s story is the tale of an idealism that turns destructive once it becomes clear that there can be no place left for ideals. Rather like the original Joan, this one sets out to use her magical gifts to end war. However, she comes to see that “to end war meant to end its maker, to marry creation and destruction rather than hold them in false opposition”. She joins forces with the sun to terminate the possibility of human habitation on Earth. As a result, she is given a trial on Ciel in which she comes face to face with her adversary, De Men. He proposes a linguistic chess match; Joan retorts that there can be no such thing “when language and being and knowing themselves are revealed to be dumb binaries”. And then, in an act meant to evoke shock and awe at its medieval authenticity, Joan is burned at the stake. Or is she?

Joan’s story, burned on to Christine’s skin, becomes a way to consider the relationship between the word and the flesh, as well as the ties between the Earth and its human inhabitants. Gender is key here because, in the absence of genitalia, it has become so theoretical. What Joan offers, perhaps more importantly than anything else, is her continued embodiment as a woman. In a move reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, De Men hopes to capture Joan and to use her to breed. But he is not the only one to be obsessed by the power of Joan’s body. Christine too, mourning the carnal, craves “her sexuality – her sexual reality. The fact of her body. Not particularly female, leaning towards male, an exquisite androgyny.”

There is a tension here that lies at the core of the book. Christine celebrates the androgyny that is the by-product of bodily disintegration. She and her quasi-lover Trinculo (a man who was gay on Earth but can now desire Christine in their new, disembodied world) engage in a kind of bawdy banter that arouses them both into an apparently orgasmic state. Yet she nonetheless craves Joan’s body, which, however androgynous it may seem from the outside, is still the body of a woman in the old-fashioned, earthly sense.

These conundrums are presented within a framework that is unapologetically intellectual. Yuknavitch is an American academic who writes literary criticism as well as novels; the book is inflected with the language of critical theory. If Joan sounds curiously like a semiotician at her trial, then Christine is even more openly academic.

The narrative mode is to show through dramatic, often moving scenes, and then to tell, reflecting on them analytically. This disjunction can be jarring, but it’s knowingly done, because the book’s style is itself a theme. Christine is aware of the tiredness of theoretical language even as she uses it; she hopes that by writing on the body she can resist this. “It’s our idiotic minds that overwrite everything. But the body has a point of view.” She is coming to see – and this is where the book is at its most idealistic – that “two things have always ruptured up and through hegemony: art and bodies”. By combining the two she hopes to provide resistance on behalf of Joan, of women in general and, ultimately, of the life force of the Earth itself.

What Joan and Christine are learning together, through their curiously interconnected stories, is that the Earth is living matter and its inhabitants are merely part of it. It can be regenerated, but it will take the blood of the living to do so. “Everything is matter,” Christine says, in a passage reminiscent of Lessing’s Sufi-inspired Shikasta. “Everything is moved by and through energy. Bodies are miniature renditions of the entire universe.” As with Lessing, there is much to confuse and to irritate in this book. But as a vision of the collective that is carefully attuned to the importance of the ties that bind us to each other, and to our world, it is nonetheless moving and compelling.

  • Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury). The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Cannongate, £14.99). To order a copy for £12.74, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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