The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch is not an author I’ve come across before. Considering she writes feminist speculative fiction with a strongly literary feel this should probably come as no surprise – there are many excellent writers in genre fiction but most of the ones that make the shelves are male and not looking to write ‘literature’ just a good story.  They probably form part of a trilogy at the very least – and a series that gets into double figures is not unusual – but I don’t think many of them pack quite so much into less than 300 pages.

9781786892393The basic premise of the book is that the human race is pretty much doomed. Earth is a blasted wasteland after an environmental catastrophe ends a long and bitter global war. The rich and powerful now live in a space facility known as CIEL and fritter away their time inscribing their own bodies with something like a cross between tattoos and self-harm. The survivors of humanity have become, somehow, pale, hairless and without any sexual characteristics – sexual acts themselves have become punishable offences but the body adornments they favour are usually erotic tales. The most powerful figure on CIEL is Jean de Men – who seems to be leading a bloodthirsty cult – and his nemesis is Joan, a young girl, originally from France when such a place existed, who seems to hear voices and has strange powers over the Earth itself. Much is made of the parallels with the historical figure of Joan of Arc and her fate seems to be much the same as this Joan is burnt to death. Or possibly not, according to her faithful followers both on Earth and CIEL.

This wasn’t an easy read. It is very literary in tone, with very strong language used throughout, and is definitely speculative rather than sci-fi. The reasons for mankind’s transformation isn’t explained, nor are Joan’s powers, but the story and language are gripping. Worth persisting with.



Taduno’s Song -Odafe Atogun

I started with African literature many years ago. In Sixth Form I was studying for an International Baccalaureate rather than A Levels and our English Literature course focussed on world literature (in translation) so I was studying Dostoevsky, Moliere and Achebe when I was 16. (I also studied World History rather than British – French Revolution, Unification of Italy and the Causes, Practices and Effects of War rather than dates of Corn Laws and Prime Ministers. I know nothing about Gladstone but remember the Sanjak of Novi Pazar. Ho hum). Anyway, my enjoyment of literature from around the globe continued at University – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dante and Monkey by Wu Ch’êng-ên – and is still with me today. You’ll know my love of quirky Scandinavian stories, Korean animal fables and philosophical French romances but my fascination with fiction from African writers also continues.

TadunoMy latest is Taduno’s Song by Nigerian author Odafe Atogun and my first thought was that he, like me, may have read Marquez at a formative age. Taduno, in exile from Nigeria, receives a letter from his girlfriend which encourages him to return home. There are hints of oppression and the knowledge that Lela loves and misses him and, curiously, the fact that the letter reaches him with just his name, Taduno, in an unspecified foreign country. Add this to the fact that when Taduno returns to Lagos he finds that although the government is still afraid of him as a charismatic singer opposed to their regime no-one can recall his name or what he looks like. Only his voice would have reminded them but the brutal beating which led him to flee Nigeria three months earlier has destroyed that. So far my initial thoughts were that this was a take on magical realism but then the story also took up so many of the political undertones which are also typical of Marquez. The magic and the dark political times continue as Taduno tries to rediscover his voice and rescue Lela from prison.

The cover of this book reminds me of Woody Guthrie and his ‘this machine kills fascists’ message which he placed on his guitar in 1941. I spent much of this book agonizing, along with Taduno, as he has to choose between his countrymen and the woman he loves.