Joan by Katherine J Chen review – a fresh portrait of Joan of Arc | Fiction

TThe life of the woman we know today as Joan of Arc is astonishingly well documented. She was born about 1412 in the village of Domrémy, in northeastern France, during the Hundred Years War. From the age of thirteen she had visions of saints. At seventeen, she presented herself to the court of the Dauphin at Chinon, and based on her God-sent visions, convinced him that she could save France. Clad in armor, with hair cropped like a man’s, she led the French to several victories over the English and their allies, until she was captured and imprisoned, condemned as a heretic, and burned at the stake at the age of 19. , she has been used as a symbol by wildly opposing ideologues: fascist and communist, Vichy government and French resistance, nationalist and feminist.

How did an allegedly skinny alien farm girl become a leader of professionally violent men and then a national icon? Katherine J Chen explores this question in her second novel, Joan. In seeking the answer, Chen will have faced a dilemma familiar to historical novelists: to favor Joan’s recorded history, which shows her as the instrument of God and men, or to meet the expectations of modern readers. recognizing, sharpened by stories in which a woman can be the agent of her own life rather than the object of others.

Chen avoids this binary choice by introducing us not to a pious girl who submits to God’s visions, but to a child with extraordinary physical gifts embedded in an earthly medieval world. In graceful prose, occasionally overloaded with similes, and using the present tense, the language of the eternal now, Chen suspends Joan in a liminal space where her historical visceral reality, her agency and the mystery of her unearthly gifts coexist. can exist together. And those gifts are amazing. Joan is regularly and brutally beaten by her father. Instead of deforming under this attack, she grows into a tall, powerful figure with an amazing ability to heal from injuries. In her mid-teens, she outshines any man in the region: unbreakable, unbeatable, capable of doing her hand at any task. Chen helps the reader suspend disbelief by portraying Joan as a seductive, all-human blend of caution and trust, and fiercely protective of those she loves, such as her only sister, Catherine.

But Joan is restless and impatient, looking for a purpose. Then she is incapacitated for work for the first time in her life – due to a fever – and the English choose that moment to attack her village. They rape and brutalize Catherine. Here, after skillfully avoiding so many of the pitfalls of woman-as-hero writing, Chen stumbles into the tired woman-as-avenging-angel trope. Joan finally finds her goal: she will drive the English from French soil, not – as a male hero would – because she has to, but because she is motivated by personal loss.

The story speeds up and Joan’s gifts increase. When she encounters French soldiers, all she needs to do is watch a man knock and pull to become a skilled archer who never misses, even in the dark. Five days after she first picks up a sword, she can take on an armored knight who has done nothing but train with such weapons since childhood. She still doesn’t know “how my arrow always finds its target, only that the bow, the sword, the spear are right in my hand”. Though she is not devout in any other way, she believes that these gifts are from God, and that makes her afraid that: “He can take it from him, that I will lose my strength as I did the day the English attacked Domrémy and I fell. sick.”

Joan’s pressing fear helps us maintain our willingness to believe as she becomes a war scholar. For here at last is the true Joan, glorious in the flower of her strength, leading her men to victory after victory.

It doesn’t last; it can’t – history tells us that. But as she heads toward her inevitable end, the book has one last gift to offer in Joan’s excitement and definitive understanding of her future: “Before every battle, the foot soldiers, artillerymen, and sappers will bow their heads and call out my name. They will say, Joan, give me strength and courage, and I will hear them wherever I am. I can never die.”

Hild by Nicola Griffith is published by Blackfriars. Joan by Katherine J Chen is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99). Order your copy at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Delivery charges may apply.

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