Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2017

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, by Ali Alizadeh

I loved every word of this spellbinding book, which kept me captivated to the last page even though I thought I knew what the ending must be.

(I had a conversation with The Spouse this morning about how we came to know the story of Joan of Arc: did we read it in The Victorian Reader, Fifth or Sixth Book?  Or The School Magazine that came once a month? Was it one of those Annuals that we used to get each year at Christmas?)

[Edited a bit by me to reduce its length and the number of links & footnotes] Wikipedia summarises her  life like this:

Joan of Arc (French: Jeanne d’Arc), 1412-1431), nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” (French: La Pucelle d’Orléans), is considered a heroine of France for her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War and was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. Joan of Arc was born to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romée, a peasant family, at Domrémy in north-east France. Joan said she received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence after the siege was lifted only nine days later. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s coronation at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.

On 23 May 1430, she was captured at Compiègne by the Burgundian faction, which was allied with the English. She was later handed over to the English and put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon on a variety of charges. After Cauchon declared her guilty she was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431, dying at about nineteen years of age.

This trial was later debunked and Jeanne was declared a martyr, and she was canonised as a saint in 1920.  (The Catholic Church doesn’t rush into things, it seems).

Ali Alizadeh’s Jeanne d’Arc, however, is not quite the saintly Joan of my childhood memory.  She is much more interesting, provocatively so.  And although The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc is fiction, it is, according to the blurb, based on rigorous study of the historical material. 

When the story opens Jeanne is a vulnerable captive, escorted into a dank cell by men waiting only for nightfall to violate her famed virginity.

Two more men enter, tense and compact.  Steel helmets and poleaxes.  In between them, another person.  Being escorted by the guards.  Being held by her wrists.  She’s shorter than the room’s other occupants.  A young woman.  Filthy face.  Her dark hair, a shoulder-length mess. Barefooted.  Brought into the space unwillingly.

The guards take her to the centre of the cell.  The captain with the key orders something in a foreign language. The other men avoid looking at the woman, continue to grip her wrists.  She’s dressed like a man, in black tunic and black leggings.

The captain exits.  The soldier with the spear glances at her.  Her eyes are closed. The soldier’s fists tighten around his weapon. He grunts a phrase, puerile, forceful.  Her lips tremble.  One of the prison guards grins, stops grinning when the captain marches back in.  (p.3-4)

As a condition of perpetual imprisonment rather than burning at the stake, she is forced out of the tunic and leggings which to some extent had protected her against sexual assault.  She is shackled by the ankles and left alone to cry.  Later, visited by a curious English noblewoman, she begs to be placed in the custody of nuns not soldiers:

Please, countess.  I’m not safe in here.

Oh come now, dear.  Life in a prison cannot be worse than death by burning, can it?  (p.22)

The English of this story are brutish and cruel, and their invasion of France is depicted through a postcolonial lens as part of early Imperial ambitions.  (As if there never was a Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066.  But I suppose Britain as the most successful imperial power in history is inevitably fair game).  But the French themselves are shown to be culpable: their infighting over the right to the French throne made them vulnerable to the technological superiority of English weaponry and the discipline of their soldiers.  Nevertheless the statistics are shocking: 7000 died at the Battle of Vermeuil and the population of France was reduced from between 17-20 million to 10 million over the course of the Hundred Years War.

What is striking about this version of Jeanne’s story is her anguish about the forbidden love she yearns for – her church proscribes same-sex relationships on pain of death.  Jeanne is a good Catholic, but she is also intensely human, as indeed she must have been.  Anyone reading this today can only weep for same-sex lovers of the past who braved their love when at risk of such terrible penalties.  But as Alizadeh makes clear,  the Jeanne that he has created has a religious belief which meant that she feared eternal damnation as much as earthly punishment.  Because she hears voices, she believes she has a relationship with God and she desperately wants to believe that the love she feels for a woman is not sinful.  It is unbelievably poignant.

Because this work of fiction is contemporary, the author overtly acknowledges the problem of authenticating these voices which are crucial to the legend:

Everyone has heard about her Voices, and we know nothing about their reality.

I’m sure they’re real.  (Real like yours, my love.)  But can one ever be certain?  That it was Saint Catherine and not a demon or an imaginary thing.  Informed by psychology, psychiatry and neurology, theorists peddle their theses.  Epilepsy is the latest fad, but she never had a seizure.  And it is known that one should not trust historical records and religious beliefs.  So what can be said about her Voices?  A dialogue with a deity or a deep internal monologue?  Supernatural voices that reverberate eardrums, or true, inaudible voices in the mind’s intangible ear?  (p.93)

In this passage you can see the narrations shifting between first person narrative of Jeanne and the author’s voice.  I like this: it brings Jeanne alive and makes her a vivid character and not just an historical figure.  For her, there is no doubt about the reality of the voices but there is the added dimension that the voices might be demonic and not heavenly.  For the 21st century observer, there are contemporary theories that deny the mystical.   The historical record is undeniable: but were Jeanne’s victories miracles, or was it that she spooked the English because – with a similar belief system – they thought she was a sorceress and this affected morale?

The Voices are always Italicised and set apart in a layout evocative of poetry.  These, we assume, are the author’s invention.  They are beautiful, but often ambiguous.

The intriguing narrative voices don’t stop there.  As in the first excerpt that I quoted above, there is also a third person narrative which is direct and authoritative… especially in the beginning when the ins and outs of the Hundred Years War is explained with reader-friendly clarity and also a poetic sensibility.  The reader takes these on trust: it sounds historically accurate.  Most of us, after all, know nothing about the Hundred Years War.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc is going to be one of my best books of the year.

Jonathan Shaw has written a superb review, make sure you read it too.

PS I forgot to say, the cover art is an inspired choice.  Nobody really knows what Jeanne looked like, but this cover by Harry Williamson uses an image by Colin Underhill at Alamy Stock Photos.  I’d love to know if it’s a detail from a real stained-glass window and if so where, or if Underhill is an artist who created the image.  Either way, the expression of her face is just perfect for the Jeanne depicted in this book, and I hope the designer gets an award of some sort for it.

PPS I just found the image at Alamy: it’s a detail from a photograph of a stained glass window by Christopher Whall, at St. Leonard`s Church, Apethorpe, Northamptonshire in England.  And Christopher Whall was a very influential artist in stained glass who worked in the 19th century and into the 20th.  Some of his works are in Gloucester Cathedral: search for him with Google and then select images if you want to see more.

Author: Ali Alizadeh
Title: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336405
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc
or direct from the publisher

 


Responses

  1. My father used to ask: How long was the Hundred Years War? Not 100 years apparently but something like 110. I don’t remember Joan of Arc from school. The only version I remember reading is Thos Keneally’s Blood Red Sister Rose

    • I haven’t read that one! I’ve read lots of Keneally, but not that one!!

  2. One of your best for the year! It sounds extraordinary. I must have read or been told a fair bit about her quite early in my school years too because she has certainly stayed with me.

    • As a writer yourself, you’d love the way Alizadeh has played with the narrative voice. I think it was genius:)

  3. Good question Lisa, when did we hear about her? Certainly it was at school for me too, and I’m guessing though a reader. It’s just one of those stories you feel you’ve always known. And, I reckon she’s probably had as many – if not more books written about her – as Cleopatra or Ann Boleyn. Anyhow, I’ve only read the first part of your review, in case I read it myself! But it sounds interesting.

    • It’s intriguing because she’s a French heroine, and you and I are heirs to the British influence on our curriculum before it was reformed in the 1970s.

      • Yes, interesting point, Lisa, but I think that for some reason she transcended nationality?

        • LOL The world tends to be a bit short of female military heroes?

  4. I don’t remember her featuring in our history lessons – maybe the way she was treated was an embarrassment so she was conveniently overlooked?

    • Did you ever come across a charming children’s history of England called Kings and Things? It gets a (sanitised) chapter in that… I read that book over and over when I was a child, but I don’t think that’s how I know of her. She is in my mind along with Other Brave Women like Nurse Cavell and Florence Nightingale…

      • No I dont know that one at all Lisa. Nightingale we of course learned about but not Cavell as much

        • It’s probably politically incorrect these days, but I loved it as a child and I certainly learned a lot of English history from it.

  5. Thanks for the mention, Lisa. I’m glad you liked this book so much – and you clearly read the same book I did. The anonymous reviewer in the current Saturday Paper seems to have hated and despised the one he read.

    • *or she*

    • Oh, I was so disgusted by that ‘review’, I almost cancelled my subs to the paper. There was some other agenda in the subtext of it, because it was spiteful as well as facile, written by someone completely out of his/her depth about contemporary literature. You could tell by the inane objection to the deconstructed text – as naïve as I would be if asked to comment on a football match…

  6. I have no idea if or when I learned of the famous maid but she became my first heroine throughout childhood. It may have been something to do with being a wee Scottish lassie and being sympathetic to her terrible demise by the English. Of course that was a narrow position but she still remains a fascinating woman in history and look forward to reading this book.

    • Hi Fay, it’s amazing, isn’t it… we all know of her and we can’t remember how that happened!

  7. […] techniques, it places the reader in the same position as the reader of Ali Alizadeh’s novel The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc: both novels depict mystical experiences and characters acting on spiritual beliefs that most people […]

  8. […] techniques, it places the reader in the same position as the reader of Ali Alizadeh’s novel The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc: both novels depict mystical experiences and characters acting on spiritual beliefs that most people […]

  9. I didn’t realize I hadn’t commented here. I think I was a little choked to find that it’s only available outside Australia on kindle. Now, thanks to a world made smaller by Twitter, a copy is coming my way… I’m really looking forward to it.

    • Wonderful! I can’t wait to see your review:)

  10. […] of debut novelists who spring to mind: there is Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman; and also The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh.  No doubt as the awards come closer there will be more discussion about […]

  11. […] The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, by Ali Alizadeh […]


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