Book Review: The Book of Joan

Book Review (1)

I was distraught when I heard about The Book of Joan. A close friend sent me the review which was recently published in The Guardian, and I simply could not believe my eyes. Lara Feigel describes how “Yuknavitch takes three real people from medieval France and reimagines them in a post-apocalyptic future”. Without giving too much away, I had hoped that a similar sentiment might be applied to my project in the future. Although my medieval sources are not French, Feigel’s description of The Book of Joan as a story which uses a post-apocalyptic setting to reintroduce medieval characters to a contemporary audience encapsulates (at least on the surface) everything I have set out to achieve with my own novel.

I read the review in The Guardian on Friday, and on the same day I purchased The Book of Joan for myself. Over the weekend just past, I have devoured it, initially with the sole purpose of discovering whether or not my WIP was still worth pursuing, or if all my goals had already been accomplished by a more experienced and timelier author. Although I certainly achieved this goal, I also unwittingly discovered a narrative which was at times both beautiful and unbearable in its brutality, and simply impossible to put down.

Let me begin with a brief description, although that is a hard task, as the narrative is densely packed with action (both past and present) which is often alluded to, but not often recounted in full.

Christine lives on a space platform called CIEL, which floats above the dying earth in the year 2049. Only the most elite of the remaining population were able to gain access to this platform, where they now exist as white, papery figures with no genitalia and no human sensations like arousal, pain, or even sweat.  CIEL is ruled with an iron fist by Jean de Meun, who forbids any act even imitative of sexual relations, although both reproductive and recreational sex are equally unobtainable for these human survivors.

Jean de Meun’s nemesis is Joan, a warrior who carries a unique gift with her, bestowed in childhood. Her unique bond with the earth allowed her to lead a group of rebels against Jean de Meun, resulting in a war which very few survived.

What follows is a tale about the unstable link between creation and destruction, the full spectrum of gender, and the relationship between humanity and the earth. The scope of this book is epic, and much is achieved and covered in a relatively short space of pages.

The pace of this novel is thunderous, it gallops at a great speed, adding new characters and rules to the universe with blinding regularity towards the latter half. It can be hard to keep up, and hard to feel that you have understood everything you have read. In particular, the climax was not especially sophisticated, or well resolved, but there were some satisfying plot twists which were worth waiting for in the second half.

It should also be noted that the prose, although very pretty in some scenes, was often vague and laborious to read. The same adjectives were often repeated again and again to describe the same nouns, and many of the characters were prone to long spoken or internal monologues on lofty concepts such a love, death, and the meaning of life. These monologues were very messily constructed and often unclear in meaning, seeming digressive rather than profound.

Overall, my reading of The Book of Joan assuaged my fears. What made me breathe a sigh of relief was the lack of engagement with the medieval origins of the three main characters. There were certainly references and homages paid to their roots, but Christine and Jean’s narratives had very little relevance to the works which they produced in their own lifetimes. The Book of Joan appropriates suitable protagonists from the past, updates and reanimates them to match their setting, but does not simultaneously revive as many of the medieval ideologies, tropes, or symbols as I had anticipated it would.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed The Book of Joan. The character of Joan was a particular highlight. Yuknavitch’s exploration of both gender and sexuality within this warrior is not only ground-breaking, but hugely empowering. Joan is a compelling narrator, and it is right that her tale should represent the very core of this novel, for she has the most incredible, unapologetic and unflinching story to tell.

I feel as though, by reading this book, and exploring its strengths and weaknesses, I have passed an important trial on the road to completing my own novel. More importantly, however, The Book of Joan represents a step in a new literary direction which I would like to follow, albeit with my own sense of style.

Seeking Out Conflict

adding conflictto a boring first draft (1)

It’s official – I completed another January goal: I finished editing the first draft of my manuscript. It was not a pleasant experience, as my previous post would suggest, and it became a real struggle to force myself to read line upon line of badly-worded, sloppily-phrased prose.

The most pressing problem which loomed as I finished reading the first draft was that the plot needed a drastic restructure. ‘Restructure’ doesn’t even really cover it – I needed to slash at least half of what I’d written, and replace it with something much, much more interesting. Namely, what my first draft was missing is the most important ingredient for all plots: conflict.

Stories thrive on conflict, and wither away without it. It’s an important lesson for any story-teller, and one which Tolkien touches on in The Hobbit:

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

This passage comes when Bilbo visits Rivendell, and I vividly remember finding Tolkien’s descriptions of that wondrous haven so comforting that I found myself wishing, as Bilbo does, whether he might stay there forever. Unfortunately, as the narrator so aptly points out, that would not make a good, nor a long story. It is fair to say, therefore, that my first draft was neither a good, nor a particularly long story (although I certainly felt that it dragged on).

 Conflict is probably one of the first elements of a story which writers conceive, when they first come up with an idea. Without conflict, there can be no quest, no motivation and absolutely no progression. Can you imagine The Hobbit without Smaug the dragon? What about Paradise Lost without Satan’s plot to deceive mankind? Think about your favourite stories, and what would be left of them without the sources of conflict which drive them forward. Pretty grim stuff, right?

It’s fair to say that I did have a source conflict in mind when I began writing this WIP, but this means of motivating my characters onward did not prove to be quite so urgent as I might have liked. But seeking out a source of conflict, having already shaped a setting and characters, is quite different and, in truth, quite difficult.

It was probably not wise to start plotting for a second draft so soon after I had finished looking at my first, but, unfortunately, time is precious and with a weekend alone in the flat I thought it was the best use of my time. I started searching for a new source of conflict by asking myself some questions: Where must this tale end? What must be achieved on the way? What obstacle might prevent this from being achieved?

It took a while to get there, but once the idea came, everything started to fall into place. I am pleased to report that I now have a full outline for a second draft with a new and shiny source of conflict. This single (but significant) change has helped me to develop not only the plot, but also my characters, my sense of pace, and most importantly a story which is much more interesting for me to tell and (hopefully!) for you to read. Those three simple questions really helped me to pin down what my intentions are as the story-teller, and I’d really recommend that (even if you don’t end up in the same predicament I found myself in) that you ask yourself the same questions.

I have a lot left to do. My plans before the first draft were not comprehensive and, for the second draft, I want to spend a little more time setting out my plot scene-by-scene, exploring my characters’ backgrounds, and preparing myself for a more successful draft. All of these pursuits, however, have been made much easier by the fact that I now have a solid grasp of the conflict for my yet untitled WIP.

Moral of the story – as unpleasant as they might be, every story needs a Smaug, a Satan, or a tone deaf Pierce Brosnan (thank you, Mamma Mia).

Book Review : The Buried Giant

Book Review_The Buried Giant


The Buried Giant is a fantastically tender tale. Elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice set out to visit their son in a nearby village. Their journey is quickly diverted off course, and they become the travelling companions of Wistan, a Saxon warrior from the Fens; Edwin, a promising young lad shunned by his village, and Sir Gawain, the last remnant of King Arthur’s court. The plot which unravels represents a unique combination of historical, fantastical and literary fiction, and the narrative proves to be both delightful and immensely endearing.

Although there’s a fair share of action, The Buried Giant is fundamentally a character-driven novel. Axl and Beatrice are highlights among the cast of players, and it was extremely refreshing to see a large part of the story through Axl’s eyes, particularly in a historical/fantasy setting. These genres tend to favour younger and able-bodied heroes, but Axl and Beatrice’s ailments and struggles made their journey feel much more tangible to the reader.

My favourite character by far was Sir Gawain. Ishiguro dedicates two chapters to Gawain’s reveries, which are bumbling, aimless and digressive in the most charming way. I was extremely excited to hear that Ishiguro was somewhat inspired by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight whilst writing this novel, and I think this influence shows most in his depiction of Sir Gawain as a figure travelling through the dangerous English landscape, with ‘no fere bot his fole‘ [no friend but his horse].

As with Axl and Beatrice, much of the innovation of Gawain’s character comes from the fact that he is reaching the end of his life. In fact, this innovation applies to the setting of the book as a whole. Ishiguro expertly navigates the dying influence of Arthur’s court; a unique perspective which has not been thoroughly explored in fiction (historically, writers have preferred to track the rise, and then the fall), and although King Arthur does not feature prominently in the novel and (as far as I can remember) does not have any dialogue, his tracks can be seen everywhere in The Buried Giant.

When researching the book, it quickly became clear that there has been much discussion about the genre of The Buried Giant, and in retrospect I feel that the attention drawn to this topic is unwarranted. The Buried Giant mixes genre no more than any of Ishiguro’s other works. Never Let Me Go, for instance, mixes science fiction, romance and literary fiction. However, it should be said that the inclusion of fantastical elements in The Buried Giant is particularly masterful, and Ishiguro weaves them into his world so effortlessly that they become a believable part of the landscape. Furthermore, the use of these tropes does not sacrifice any of the literary significance of the work, rather it adds to it.

There was one major point of contention which I had with The Buried Giant: the use of multiple points of view. The multiple narrators worked well at times, supporting various plots, sub-plots and character arcs with ease. As ever, Ishiguro’s use of the first person is strikingly effortless, and this is most evident in the chapters dedicated to Gawain’s reveries and the final chapter, which I will not spoil. However, I was somewhat disappointed on the first occasion when the perspective moved away from Axl, and I couldn’t help feeling that I was far more attached to him as a narrator than any of the other points of view which emerged. Out of all of the narrations, Edwin’s was by far the weakest and I found myself rushing through his chapters to reach something more interesting.

Overall, The Buried Giant is a fantastic read, particularly for any individual with an interest in medieval history, literature or language. Ishiguro approaches the setting of post-Roman Britain with sophistication and nuance, and resists trying to fill in too many gaps or make too many assumptions. As an exploration of collective trauma and the quandary of remembering versus forgetting, it is sublime and I would very much recommend it to any interested readers.