Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc by Katherine J. Chen

Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc by Katherine J. Chen

With such a well-known historical figure as the eponymous character, a reader has to wonder, “What is Chen going to bring to the story that we don’t already know? What’s going to be unique about this version?” In other words, why read this when Joan of Arc’s biography can be so easily accessed elsewhere. The answer is apparent almost immediately, but — in all honesty — didn’t fully hook me until Part Two.

Chen’s Joan unfolds in four parts, the longest are the first two, which are focused on Joan’s childhood and early life. Here, a word of warning on the content is warranted: I won’t spoil it for you, just know that there are prolonged episodes of abuse and gendered violence. However, these are critical parts of both Joan’s story and Chen’s commentary on medieval gender; it is in these initial sections of the novel that the thread of feminist commentary on late Medieval injustice against the female sex and gender begin — and is continually woven throughout the remainder. Parts three and four are shorter, though no less powerful or impactful. These sections cover the part of the Historical Joan’s life that we know: her military victories and defeats, her incredible and rapid rise in the French court and royal favor, and her violent, tragic death.

Given that she was aged nineteen when she was executed, Chen’s emphasis on the early and historically unknown years of Joan’s life immediately signals Chen’s intention. This is not a novel of SAINT Joan of Arc, not a novel about the Maid of Orleans, but — as the title should amply hint — is a novel about the girl, the woman, the person, Joan.

There are other ways Chen immediately announces this is a fictional take on the non-Historical Joan: the novel is written in 3rd person, present tense, which suggests to the reader that none of the events unfolding should be taken as a foregone conclusion; they are happening right now, the reader is a witness. Since historical scholarship is always written in the past tense (as a rule), Chen is clear that this should not be read as a piece of creative non-fiction.

Speaking of history, it is worth noting that Chen’s novel is also not about Joan at all. While Joan is a fictional protagonist, Chen’s novel is grounded in solid history. And I do not mean merely the dates and outcomes of the battles or the names of the characters who inhabit this world. Chen has clearly immersed themselves in the medieval French world and successfully does the same for the reader through their prose. Descriptions of characters and scenes convey not only the image of the person or the place, but reveal the rigid class hierarchies, influence of religion, gendered expectations, and cultural milieu of this period. Chen not only gives us a biography of Joan, but also texturizes her world for the reader so that the reader walks away with an almost tactile, palpable sense of this world. For example, in describing one character, Chen writes of how Joan notices their hands are smooth and absent of callouses, a clear signal of their status and lifestyle. “Joan”, the novel, is a vivid landscape of medieval France and its culture. This is arguably Chen’s strongest answer the question I posed above, the special “thing” Chen brings to an already famous, somewhat overdone historical narrative.

A final and related note to this praise: Chen does not romanticize medieval European history and the effect of injecting medieval elements into her prose is (thankfully) not pedantic. It is informative and necessary, serving to achieve that cultural immersion I spoke of above. For example, religion is a major element of this period of history and in Chen’s novel, but Chen does not pose secular, material concerns and ambitions in opposition to religion or divine will; Chen understands history and its nuances, framing the events of Joan’s transformation in much more human and earthly terms. The effect is refreshing. Too much historical fiction assumes a presentist perspective; the characters are contemporary people, holding contemporary worldviews and values plonked down in some other era in time. Chen successfully avoids this annoying anachronism.

All in all, Chen’s Joan is a fantastic novel: I personally dislike present tense narratives and Joan of Arc is not a historical figure that appeals, so my rating of four stars is not indicative of the merits of the novel itself. It’s worth reading. Read it if you love medieval history, women’s history, or Joan of Arc!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s