Books

Ali Alizadeh
The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc

It begins with the Maid of Orléans, history’s most charismatic female hero, languishing in an English dungeon. Great ladies glide through and brutish guards hurl abuse, but none suspect her secret: the warrior virgin who led an army and changed the course of history has loved – and been loved in return.

While waiting for the hated Goddams to decide what to do with her, Jeanne huddles in the corner of her cell and comforts herself with memories of her exploits in love and war, of galloping across the war-ravaged countryside, cuddling up to accommodating tavern landladies, and charging fearlessly into battle.

When Jeanne was just a girl, Saint Catherine had promised her a soulmate, a woman with clear blue eyes and hair the colour of fire. Eventually such a woman did appear, and together they passed many happy nights playing backgammon and praying and smooching in Jeanne’s bedchamber.

So, yes, Ali Alizadeh’s take on the life of Jeanne d’Arc is a kind of egregiously silly lesbian coming-of-age frolic, albeit masquerading as a literary historical novel.

And it might have been fun – even refreshingly outrageous – if it wasn’t such a pain to read. Jeanne’s vapid retrospections and disconcertingly modern views on religion are jostled by colourless slabs of historical exposition, and the whole novel seems squashed and broken, as though one of those deadly English cannonballs has gone crashing through it.

Nor does it help that beneath Alizadeh’s descriptions of Jeanne’s romantic adventures, there is a hint of something a bit creepy. Does he need to dwell so often on Jeanne’s masculine attire, her black tunic and leggings? Does he need to animate the misogynist curses of the English with such ugly enthusiasm? And why does the point of view jolt so abruptly between the third and first person, as if the narrator were thrusting himself into Jeanne’s mind?

This is the sort of novel that can make you feel a bit icky and a bit guilty, as though you have unwittingly involved yourself in someone else’s not entirely wholesome fantasy.

Alizadeh is at his most vivid and involving during the many set-piece battle scenes, but there is little else to admire in this giddy fiction. Shaw, Shakespeare, Dickens, Schiller, Dreyer, Anouilh, Rivette all had a go at Joan of Arc. This is as bad as any, much worse than most.  JR

Giramondo, 279pp, $26.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR

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