Books & Literature

Book Review: Joan, by Katherine J. Chen

HISTORICAL FICTION: Girl. Warrior. Heretic. Saint? A stunning feminist reimagining of the life of Joan of Arc, perfect for fans of Cecily and Alison Weir.

Breathes new life into the age-old tale of a French national heroine.

Jehanne d’Arc, often anglicised as Joan of Arc, has gripped public imagination since medieval times. A teenage girl chosen by God to lead the French army to victory sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, but Joan was a real person with a real story. Unfortunately, the details of that story have been skewed by history and bias to the point where it becomes difficult to separate truth from myth. Both historical accounts and fictional retellings are often consistent in their portrayal of Joan as a pious religious figure with loyalty to the Christian church above all else. But in her 2022 novel Joan, author Katherine J. Chen paints a different picture, and doubtlessly, one much more relatable to a modern audience.

More a reimagining than a retelling, the novel begins when Joan is still a child born to a peasant family in the village of Domrémy (now called Domrémy-la-Pucelle after Joan’s nickname la Pucelle d’Orléans). We witness her transformation from a vulnerable, unwanted daughter to a warrior intimidating even to the powerful knights of the French army. Though Joan’s character growth is satisfying to read, she shows hints of this potential even in the opening pages, eager to participate in a mock battle between the boys of her village and the boys of an enemy village when no other girl is present on the battlefield.

Like a play, the book opens with a cast of characters, which makes it easy to keep track of who’s who in this epic story that spans years. The cast list is useful as the various figures of Joan’s family, French royalty, clergymen, courtiers, soldiers, and France’s enemies can be confusing at times. A map of France in 1429 is also included to ground the reader, and chapters of the book are divided into four parts, each with a page or two of text that catches the reader up on the political and historical context of the following chapters.

Chen’s Joan is starkly different from the majority of other portrayals thanks to her complex relationship with religion and God. Rather than appearing as a saintly “chosen one”, she rather seems layered and flawed—both of which make her remarkably human and thus easier to empathise with. She manages to be inspiring without being an otherworldly figure due to her immense physical strength and the confidence with which she holds her ground in a man’s world.  

The plot advances slowly, with the first half of the book focused on Joan’s village life and the second half focused on politics and her experience in the military. The writing is lyrical and profound at times, with the present tense adding a sense of immediacy. Chen’s attention to small details builds a clear picture of Joan’s world and makes the reader feel like they’re in it too.

One of Joan’s greatest strengths is the ending, or particularly, where the author chooses to end the story. If you know Joan of Arc’s fate, it must have been a difficult task to end the book in a way that still inspires hope and doesn’t cast a dark cloud over the reader’s day.

Reviewed by Vanessa Elle
Instagram: @vanessaellewrites

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Hachette Australia
Released: July 2022
RRP: $32.99

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