The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch is a weird book… it is another one that I picked up because of The Morning News Tournament of Books (it got knocked out in the first round).  I won’t say that I don’t recommend it, and I think it’s a very interesting book, I just feel like I didn’t get everything the author was doing and I would have actually liked it to be a little longer so I could get a better grasp on this sci-fi dystopian world.

Essenti9780062383273ally, this is a retelling of Joan of Arc, but Joan is a sort of magically powerful young woman (there’s a song in her head that’s the song of the universe? she’s closer to matter than human? I didn’t totally get it) who tried to save earth, but was also kind of an eco terrorist? And she gets burned after all the wars that lead to all the rich people going to live on space stations in the sky while continuing the suck the remaining life from the earth to sustain themselves. The story begins and is told maybe 50/50 with Christine (Christine is also based on a real medieval woman), who is a woman living on one of those space stations, but at age 49 she has only one more year before she’s basically put to death due to like… water shortages and stuff. Through Christine we learn Joan’s story. The book also very quickly builds to a climax, which I won’t really get into or give away.

A lot of the book is about the power of storytelling – in this future, the new literary form is skin grafts, they tell stories literally with their bodies:

[Christine speaking of the two gifts she will give herself for her birthday] 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.

I am an expert at skin grafting, the new form of storytelling. I intent to leave the wealth of my knowledge and skill behind. And the last of my grafts I intend to be a masterwork.

I didn’t totally get all the references to story telling, but I do agree that people are storytellers, and they stories we tell matter and they shape us and our societies:

At the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, you said that cave life was like an entire epoch made of womb logic. I though about that for an entire year. I decided you were more brilliant than anyone I’d ever known. 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.

She’ll live. She’ll become. Whatever that ends up meaning. Some story we don’t know yet, untied from all the ones that have come before

Ultimately, oddly because at times this book reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian futures always seem to come back to the power of women’s bodies!), this book is fairly uplifting. The passage I actually marked is all about devastation though…

Earth is a cemetery. There is nothing to say. Nothing to say about all of this empty. There was no proper eulogy. I think of all the so-called lifeless planets out there floating in space. Was this really the end of our story? To join the galaxies of spinning, floating planets home to nothing, to no one but the elements that comprised us? We deserve it. For what we’ve done to each other. For what we did to this orb we found ourselves inhabiting. This beautiful, godforsaken place where once there was life.

This particular story doesn’t end that way.  Although I sort of very much identify with this as the story of where we as humans may really be going — our current story seems to lead to environmental devastation. But Joan’s story suggests the possibility of re-birth. Of course, without magical people, the best we may be able to hope for is an amazing speciation event (shout out to The Sixth Extinction! The Earth might be really cool and will definitely be different in another 65 million years if we don’t totally blow it up with nuclear weapons!).

Oh and of course, there was a dead mom in this book. There’s always a dead mom:

Joan walked straight back into the fray that day, her hand still bloody with dead mother muck. … Joan put her lips to the earth, almost like she was giving the earth mouth-to-mouth. Then everything everywhere burst into flames. … “There are no more mothers,” Joan said, and in her voice was rage as old as Earth’s canyons, cut by erosion and place tectonics and the force of water. And yet her emotions were still those of a teen , unable to contain what raged inside her body.

As you, I think, can tell, this is sort of an interesting and beautifully written book — I didn’t totally get it. But I love the way this particular moment is written, Joan having lost her mother saying “There are no more mothers.” It resonates with me so much; her innocence and her childhood are gone, and suddenly she sees that everyone’s innocence is gone, and this is how she phrases it.

So, read it if you like dystopian novels of good quality and UNDER 300 pages! Which considering the length of many sci-fi books, makes this one quite unique.

Currently Reading: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar and about to start The Haunting of Hill House. Although I have so many books out of the library right now, who knows what I’ll finish first…