To the 21st-century reader, Joan of Arc may feel faraway and quaint, like a figure in an ancient stained-glass window. And yet the martyr's name calls up an array of familiar mythic images: a pious, perhaps delusional 15th-century French maiden visited by visions and voices, a young woman with a sword in her hand, in a time of endless war between France and England.
Katherine J. Chen's second novel, Joan, leaves behind the pious maiden and her visions and voices. Chen's reimagined Joan is hungry, earthy and scrappy—a natural fighter. What drives Joan isn't the voice of God but the destruction of her village by brutal English soldiers, along with an intensely personal loss. The novel follows Joan's trajectory from lowly peasant to confidant of Charles VII (the Dauphin and dispossessed heir to the French throne) to leader of the French army and sudden folk hero.
When we first meet Joan, she's a child observing other children fight in her tiny village of Donrémy. Joan is brutalized by her physically abusive father, but she has the love of her elder sister, Catherine, and best friend, Hauviette, and an easy friendship with her uncle, Durand Laxart. Durand, “a thinker, a teller of stories, a wanderer,” teaches Joan about the larger world, equipping her for life beyond her village.
By 17, Joan is strong, taller than most men and a quick study. As word of her abilities spreads to the French court, Yolande of Aragon, the Dauphin's mother-in-law, offers Joan a kind of patronage, dressing her in a man's velvet doublet. “This suits you,” Yolande says. “One must wear the clothes for which one is built. And you must put on the mantle of God.” Thus attired, Joan sets out to meet the Dauphin and persuade him that she will lead an army to take back the city of Orléans.
Joan traces the woman's quick rise and sudden fall, propelled by battles in which she shows almost supernatural powers. Chen's often-gorgeous prose moves smoothly from Joan's village to the luxurious, treacherous French court. Throughout, Joan's musings on the hampered roles of women and peasants in a disorganized, beleaguered France are progressive yet still historically believable.
The novel features a large cast of characters, listed at the book's opening, and occasionally I had to turn to the list to remind myself about a character. For readers who love Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy or Lauren Groff's Matrix, Joan offers similar pleasures with its immediacy and somewhat contemporary tone. It's an immersive evocation of a character whose name everyone knows, all these centuries later, but whom, perhaps, none of us knows at all.