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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

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

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The life of the woman we know today as Joan of Arc is astoundingly well documented. She was born circa 1412 in the village of Domrémy, north-east France, during the hundred years war. She had visions of saints from about age 13. At 17 she presented herself to the Dauphin’s court at Chinon, and, based on her God-sent visions, persuaded him she could save France. Wearing armour, with hair cut short as 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. Since then, she has been wielded as a symbol by wildly opposed ideologues: fascist and communist, Vichy government and French Resistance, nationalist and feminist.

How did a reportedly thin, otherworldly peasant 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 privilege the recorded history of Joan, which shows her as the instrument of God and men, or to acknowledge the expectations of modern readers, honed by stories in which a woman can be the agent of her own life rather than the object of others.

Chen sidesteps this binary choice by introducing us not to a pious girl submitting to God’s visions, but to a child with extraordinary physical gifts embedded in an earthy medieval world. In graceful prose, occasionally over-seasoned 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 can coexist. And those gifts are prodigious. Joan is regularly and savagely beaten by her father. Rather than warping under this assault, she grows into a tall, powerful figure with an astonishing capacity to heal from injury. By her mid-teens, she outmatches any man in the region: unbreakable, unbeatable, able to turn her hand to any task. Chen helps the reader suspend disbelief by presenting Joan as a beguiling, fully human mix of wariness and confidence, and fiercely protective of those she loves, such as her only sister, Catherine.

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

The narrative accelerates and Joan’s gifts increase. When she encounters French soldiers, she has only to see a man knock and draw to become an expert archer who never misses, even in the dark. Five days after she first picks up a sword, she can take on an armoured knight who has done nothing but train with such weapons since childhood. She still does not know “how my arrow always finds its mark, only that the bow, the sword, the spear feel right in my hand”. Although she is not pious in any other sense, she believes these gifts are from God, and that makes her afraid that, “He may take it away, that I will lose my strength as I did the day the English attacked Domrémy and I fell ill.”

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

It does not last; it cannot – history tells us so. But as she heads towards her inevitable end, the book has one last gift to offer in Joan’s exhilaration and final understanding of her future: “Before each battle, the foot soldiers, artillerymen, and sappers will bend their heads and call my name. They will say, Joan, give me strength and courage, and I shall hear them, wherever I am. I can never die.”

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

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