Review | The Book of Joan by Lidia Yukavitch | H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker

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H(a)ppy, Nicola Barker, William Heinemann, 2017

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch, Canongate, 2018

In Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, we have two novels that truly highlight what a great, dark, golden age we are living through for dystopian fiction. Both are live-wire novels full of ideas, and should be read by anyone interested in the form.

It comes as no surprise that Barker’s H(a)ppy won the Goldsmiths prize: its form is original, to say the least. Literature enthusiasts will know that the Goldsmiths prize rewards experimental fiction, encouraging it to thrive: it’s a well-needed stimulant in a fiction market that tends to cater for mostly mainstream realism. At any rate, the prize gives us an opportunity to savour such jewels as Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy, bringing recognition and attention to a writer who genuinely rewards the imagination.

The novel is a visual marvel. It’s the kind of work you’ve never seen before, both novel and polychromic sculpture at once. In the opening pages, words begin to appear in different colours occasionally, the letters gracing the page with their enigmatic hues. The reader is quickly given to understand that the colour-coded words express the emotional charge that a digitally-immersed community expect members to feel when they encounter the words. Some terms appear in blue, others in purple or mauve. Concepts like “history”, “the past”, “competitive”, “exclusive” all appear in red lettering to signal their danger to a community that has rejected the horrors of the past to form a utopian regime in which everything is harmonised. There is no disease, suffering or pain of any kind in this world. No individualism or genuine, unbridled creativity either. Everyone is connected digitally to everyone else through a kind of telepathy-enabling wireless computer which allows everyone else in the community to tune in on your thoughts and emotions and offer regulatory advice when necessary. It’s digital Zen Buddhism with a vengeance.

Things start to go askew when the heroine Mira A, an entirely indoctrinated, fully-integrated, completely unquestioning member of the community starts to experience growing restlessness in the form of an inordinate appetite for past musical forms and narrative. When she experiences complex music it scrambles her ability to feel content with the hive mind she inhabits.

Although the novel is big on visual experimentation, in its prose style it is sparse,  evoking the coldness of Anna Kavan, herself a great and mostly unsung hero of dystopian. fiction. The task of visualising Mira A falls largely to the reader, with H(a)ppy focusing on inner impressions of what it is like to be plugged into the hive mind, and what emotional and sensual awakening does to the system. All in all, the novel offers an engaging and at times bewildering experience.

Although Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan ultimately offers more traditional sci-fi and speculative novel fare, it is by no means formally or thematically conservative. One can easily see it being shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize too. It’s the kind of novel that disorients you by having more than one first-person narrative on the go, implying that the two main narrators inhabit different times (one in the future and one that initially seems to be set in a mythologised past), but by the time you reach the end everything fits very neatly into place, ending the narrative in a crescendo of twists, turns, surprise and suspense. 

The novel initially focuses on Christina, a woman in a not-too-distant future. The Earth has been ravaged to the point of being uninhabitable and humans have evolved into pale, sexless, hairless beings that cherish skin grafts the way young hip people these days value tattoos and pierced nostrils. These skin grafts are also inscribed with storylines to form complex bio-narratives. As in times of yore when ruffs and clothes signified status, the more elaborate the skin graft the higher up the social hierarchy you are. Christina is the most formidable skin grafter on board CIEL, the colossal spaceship that gravitates above the planet Earth.

An apparently unrelated narrative line recounts the mythological story of Joan, a larger-than-life, eco-goddess-cum-warrior queen who revolts against Jean de Men (who like Christina and Joan, is partly inspired by a real-life medieval figure). The conventional sci-fi battle between good and evil is complicated by feminist and ecological considerations and blurred also by Joan’s gradual understanding of her supernatural powers and their effect on the landscape.

The novel is a riveting read from start to finish. Yuknavitch’s style is muscular, creative and ultra-sensual. Like the skin grafts, it stays on your skin. You feel her words crawling around in your mind like little spiders. Like Barker’s H(a)ppy, it’s the kind of novel that deserves to go down as a landmark in the history of boundary-pushing speculative fiction.

Words by Erik Martiny.

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