Joan by Katherine J Chen Review – A Fresh Portrait of Joan of Arc | Fiction
TThe life of the woman we know today as Jeanne d’Arc is astonishingly well documented. She was born around 1412 in the village of Domrémy, northeast of France, during the Hundred Years’ War. She had visions of saints from around 13 years old. As a 17-year-old, she introduced herself to Dauphin’s court in Chinon, and based on her God-sent visions, she persuaded him to save France. Wearing armor, with hair cut short 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. Since then, she has has been used as a symbol by wildly opposing ideologues: fascist and communist, Vichy government and French resistance movement, nationalist and feminist.
How did a supposedly thin, supernatural 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. When he sought the answer, Chen would have faced a dilemma known to historical novelists: to privilege Joan’s recorded story, which shows her as the tool of God and man, or to acknowledge the expectations of modern readers, refined by stories in which a woman can be the agent of his own life instead of the object of others.
Chen circumvents this binary choice by introducing us not to a pious girl who submits to the visions of God, but to a child with extraordinary physical gifts embedded in an earthly medieval world. In graceful prose, occasionally interspersed with parables, and using the present, the language of the eternal now, Chen Joan suspends in a liminal space where her historical visceral reality, her agency and the mystery of her supernatural gifts can coexist. And these gifts are amazing. Joan is regularly and brutally beaten by her father. Instead of writhing during this attack, she grows into a tall, powerful figure with an astonishing ability to heal from injury. In her mid-teens, she surpasses any man in the region: unbreakable, unbeatable, able to turn her hand to any task. Chen helps the reader stop the disbelief by presenting Joan as a seductive, fully human blend of caution and confidence, and strongly 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 disabled – by fever – and the English choose the moment to attack her village. They rape and brutalize Catherine. Here, after skillfully avoiding so many pitfalls of writing woman-as-hero, Chen stumbles into the weary trope of woman-as-revenge-angel. Joan finally finds her purpose: she wants to drive the English from French soil, not – as a male hero can – because it needs to be done, but because she is motivated by personal loss.
The story accelerates and Joan’s gifts increase. When she meets French soldiers, she only needs 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 armored 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 way, she believes that these gifts are from God, and it makes her afraid that “he may take it away, that I will lose my powers as I did the day the English attacked Domrémy and I fell. I will.”
Joan’s pressing fear helps to maintain our will to believe when she becomes a war habit. For here is finally the true Joan, radiant in the flower of her strength, who leads her men to victory after victory.
It does not last; it can not – history tells us so. But as she approaches her inevitable end, the book has one last gift to offer in Joan’s excitement and final understanding of her future: “Before every blow, the infantry, artillerymen, and sappers will bow their heads and call my name. They will say: Joan, give me strength and courage, and I will hear them wherever I am. I can never die. “