To say that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, last year’s Nobel Prize winner (awarded this year) is a murder mystery would be misleading, but there’s definitely murder – several, in fact, – of both people and animals. Our charming, eccentric, (slightly mad?) heroine Janina Duszejko is caught up in the middle. I adored the warm humanity of this novel and the Nobel Prize worthy writing – there’s a quotable sentence on every page. Expect no hair-raising thriller, but a tender book that will stay with you for a long time.
Janina, a retired school-teacher in her 60s, lives in a remote mountain hamlet in Poland. She tends to people’s holiday homes for a living, looks after her two beloved dogs, translates the poetry of William Blake and spends time observing the gun-toting hunters in her community. When her two dogs disappear without trace, Janina goes on a mission to find out what has happened. Soon thereafter, people start dying.
Just like William Blake, Janina is passionate about protecting the natural world. Tokarczuk’s magical descriptions made me smile.
‘Close to the ground near the road I could see the tiny little faces of daisies – I could never help feeling that they were silently inspecting everyone who came this way, casting their stern judgement on us. An army of flower folk.’
Toxic masculinity and the value of nature, animals and older women are at the core of this novel which raises some intriguing questions about our dominance of the natural world. If you enjoy hunting animals, this book might make you think twice about going again.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead starts off a bit slow and Janina’s obsession with astrology gets a tad repetitive. Do persevere, though, for the sheer beauty of the writing and the brilliantly unexpected denouement.
Tokarczuk, a feminist and outspoken animal rights defender, has been hounded in her native Poland, accused of being a traitor. I guess she knows what she’s talking about when she writes:
‘…people like her, those who wield a pen – can be dangerous.’
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 272 pages.