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Lidia Yuknavitch: the narrative form could be at odds with her style. Photograph: Andrew Kovalev

The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch review – an uncanny prescience

Lidia Yuknavitch riffs on love and loss, gender and sexuality with fierce intelligence and a gritty, sometimes violent, empathy

The Book of Joan is Lidia Yuknavitch’s first book to be published on this side of the Atlantic despite being an award-winning and bestselling author in the US. A dystopian, feminist tale, released in the US last year around the same time as the hugely successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book of Joan was often mentioned in the same breath and it’s no surprise the film rights have already been snapped up.

Two previous novels, Dora: A Headcase and The Small Backs of Children, followed Yuknavitch’s critically acclaimed debut, The Chronology of Water, a memoir. The author is perhaps as well known for her extraordinary life as she is for her fiction; detailed in her memoir and TED talk which had millions of views and spawned her second book published in the US last year, The Misfits Manifesto.

Yuknavitch called misfits a “new species” and in The Book of Joan, set in the near future, humans have mutated into increasingly white creatures, without hair or genitalia and unable to procreate. Their bodies are marked by skin grafts and the narrator, Christine, is writing (by painfully burning it onto her skin) the story, the book of the revolutionary martyr Joan, clearly based on Joan of Arc.

Christine is about to be euthanised due to turning 50, a kind of recycling that extracts much-needed water for those that live in a space station, CIEL, which circles the dying Earth. Skylines – invisible energy streams – shoot from CIEL to the Earth’s surface to strip it of what’s left of its resources. Few people live on the Earth after ecological disasters and war and those that remain are dying scavengers. Joan, it transpires, has not been executed as those in CIEL have been told but remains on Earth, a revolutionary fighter. She has mutated too, into a new species, with powers of biblical proportion she is only beginning to understand, equally able to create and destroy life, and change the course of humanity.

Perhaps Yuknavitch does have an uncanny way of being prescient as the rise of CIEL’s leader Jean de Men sounds remarkably familiar; an egotistical, billionaire TV showman, whose rise was made possible by the powerful and wealthy. de Men wants to restart human production and will do so by any means and this tyrant knows no limits.

The book has multiple timelines, viewpoints and characters who speak to us in the first person. Later their story is told to us in the third. Most readers will have come across these narrative gymnastics by now and are perhaps well used to it. Telling a story this way keeps you on your toes and can keep the interest and attention at their peak for each new section but it can also have a distancing effect, preventing you from emotionally engaging with the grand sweep of the story. Authors can use these devices for that very reason, that Brechtian distance say, to keep you thinking and focused on the politics and theory rather than lose yourself in the story or your emotional response. I think the narrative form could be at odds with Yukavitch’s style, a style that is one of the strengths of her writing and of this novel.

She is a physical writer, one whose arm goes shoulder-deep into a thing and rips out its heart to show you, so you can see its raw truth – a fate similar to one of her characters. She riffs on love and loss, gender and sexuality with fierce intelligence and a gritty, sometimes violent, empathy. Yuknavitch wants you to feel things, she wants that visceral and emotional contact, and so it seems strange to choose a narrative form that keeps the reader at more of a distance.

There are many ideas in this novel and the author weaves them with critical theory, contemporary politics, classical religious and literary figures, as well as genres of fiction, that in lesser hands would have created an artful mess. It is also a testimony to Yuknavitch that I didn’t know a few of the references until after I’d finished the novel and the lack was not felt while reading. What’s remarkable is that within all of this “thinking” the tension in this literary mash-up builds towards an action-packed climax; a convergence of characters and timelines with a page-turning momentum.

Paul Mc Veigh is author of The Good Son, winner of The Polari Prize