16th May 2011
The Maid by Kimberly Cutter
The début novel by Kimberly Cutter, The Maid is an ambitious book. Set in the fifteenth century, the story begins in the French village of Domremy, with the country and its inhabitants being slowly and systematically destroyed by English soldiers in the bitter Hundred Years War.
A young peasant girl named Jehanne, uneducated, illiterate and facing the various obligations, violence and exhaustion that family life at the time involved, is visited by a council of saints who give her a holy mission.
The Maid is a powerful and sympathetic portrayal of the woman who went on to become Joan of Arc; from the zealous faith that fuelled her to the suspicions, conspiracies, betrayals and disbelief that she faced at every turn.
Her physical, spiritual and emotional journeys are charted in meticulous detail, with her transition to armoured leader of an army of thousands to her eventual imprisonment, trial and execution described in vivid, evocative language far more engaging than is typical for historical fiction.
Her death is prophesied early on in her journey, and most people with even the scantest knowledge of the legends that surround the saint’s life and death will know of her eventual canonisation after being burned alive.
So with the bare bones of the narrative already mapped out before beginning the book, the tense pace comes instead from Jehanne’s race against time to fulfil her mission, and through her internal conflicts and contradictions when it comes to violence, valour and waging war in God’s name.
Bringing fifteenth century history (not to mention such a much-mythologised story) to life so vividly is no mean feat, but it’s one the author accomplishes with ease.
Recommended for: History buffs, feminists and those who love their legendary women warriors.
Other recommended reading: More books have been written about Joan of Arc than any other women in history, so if The Maid intrigues you, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Saint Joan of Arc, a biography by Vita Sackville-West gets an acknowledgement from the author, as does Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, testimonies from her trial compiled and translated by Willard Trask.