This is the kind of book that can almost prove controversial in a sense, and I say this about its portrayal of the titular real-life historical figure, Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d’Arc). Whether or not one likes or agrees with how this book chooses to present her and her motivations shapes one’s enjoyment of the rest of the novel, and I would say that was certainly true for me. Joan has fascinated me for a long time and I’ve read quite a few books about her, and I found this particular portrayal disappointing.
In this retelling of her life, Joan’s religiosity is downplayed, and her visions are political inventions. Instead, she is a girl who has been severely physically abused by her father for most of her life, and who is not very religiously inclined at all. She is primarily motivated by violent revenge to fight against the English who raped her sister, Catherine, and which she later does. Catherine subsequently committed suicide not long after discovering she was pregnant, which only adds to Joan’s anger and resolve. Obviously, some historical liberties are being taken, and little is really known about Catherine, though it is likely that she married and died in childbirth. As for her relationship with her father, it’s simply unknown; so this could potentially be somewhat accurate.
What bothered me personally was Joan’s lack of faith in this novel. I simply think it’s not accurate to the time (which was deeply religious in all areas), and I have read quite a bit about her, and what little historical record of her remains emphasizes her deep faith. I think it’s an anachronism to suggest she was motivated by revenge, I doubt a peasant girl in 14th century France, with such a limited worldview, would think to do that, and what evidence we have about her life shows very clearly that she was religiously and patriotically motivated.
The real-life Joan never fought in any of the battles she was in, so this was also another liberty taken, and honestly, given that women are physically weaker and all the armor they wore at the time, I think it would have taken a lot of training for a woman to be able to fight, much less win.
I can understand taking some liberties in a story such as this, but removing Joan’s religious motivations destroys the essence of who she was, at least in my opinion. Her visions of the saints, whether they were real, hallucinations, fabrications, or whatever, were her primary motivations and all the evidence points to that she really believed that God wanted her to rally France. Without that, she’s just another fighter (or whatever you want to call her), and it loses the uniqueness that her story and place in history has. In reality, she served more as an inspiring spiritual figure than anything else.
“This must be what happens when you leave your home, travel, and see the world. Little by little, you begin to change, even if you are not aware of it. What was once alien becomes familiar: foreign tongues, the music of strange instruments, the vagaries of the sea. Slowly you alter until the very stars that spin in the heavens are as familiar to you as the lines of your own hand. But first you must step out your front door. You must leave behind what you know and possibly what you love. You must be willing to lose every inch of yourself, for the next time you look into a stream or a mirror, which may be weeks, years, or half a lifetime from now, you will not recognize your reflection. You must risk this much in order to gain what the world is ready to offer.”
While that was my main issue, otherwise the book did have some merits. It was very well-written and there was quite a bit of lovely and descriptive prose to be had. The setting and environment were also meticulously crafted and the author’s attention to detail in those matters really helped make the story and places come alive to the reader, whether it was the battlefields or Domrémy.
The story itself jumps in time and does not show her trial, rather it ends after one of her last defeats, and then the epilogue is set right when she is about to be burned at the stake. This was an interesting choice and it emphasized the courage she had shown throughout the story. I also think that given how Joan was shown as less religious here, her questioning scenes would have made less sense since most of her responses were oriented around religion, so perhaps it was in the book’s best interest not to include it.
This is a more irrelevant complaint, but it bothered me that nearly all of the book’s characters had their names spelled the French way (ie Jacques, Jean, etc), but Joan’s name was not spelled, Jeanne. I think it would have made more sense within the context of the book and I doubt that it would have been something that English speakers would struggle to adapt to.
Had Joan been characterized in a way that was more accurate based on actual history, then I would have enjoyed this more. I respect authors choosing to take historical liberties, but for me, this was a stretch too far and it veered into the lands of anachronisms. I would not recommend this unless you’re maybe less interested in historical accuracy and willing to explore a different idea of history.
1412. France is mired in a losing war against England. Its people are starving. Its king is in hiding. From this chaos emerges a teenage girl who will turn the tide of battle and lead the French to victory, becoming an unlikely hero whose name will echo across the centuries.
In Katherine J. Chen’s hands, the myth and legend of Joan of Arc is transformed into a flesh-and-blood young woman: reckless, steel-willed, and brilliant. This meticulously researched novel is a sweeping narrative of her life, from a childhood steeped in both joy and violence, to her meteoric rise to fame at the head of the French army, where she navigates the perils of the battlefield and the equally treacherous politics of the royal court. Many are threatened by a woman who leads, and Joan draws wrath and suspicion from all corners, while her first taste of fame and glory leaves her vulnerable to her own powerful ambition.
With unforgettably vivid characters, transporting settings, and action-packed storytelling, Joan is a thrilling epic, a triumph of historical fiction, as well as a feminist celebration of one remarkable—and remarkably real—woman who left an indelible mark on history.
Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc by Katherine Chen
Published by: Random House – Published in: 2022