I have challenged myself to read harder this year and have looked to tackle translations of books detailing lives in other countries as a way to meet this challenge. So when I read about Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead I decided to give it a go.
Tokarczuk is a Polish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018 and also the Man Booker International prize for her novel Flights in 2018 (I have already put this one on hold to explore more of her writing). I also love that Tokarczuk’s father, a teacher, was the school librarian, so I feel a connection. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead has also been adapted for the big screen by director Agnieszka Holland in the film Spoor which did not receive the same acclaim as the book.
The reviews and descriptions of the book appealed to the curious reader in me. It defies genre and I love that authors are now challenging what I now see (as a reader) is the narrow confines of what we tradionally know as a mystery, or a literary work or what is a fantasy. In this novel Tokarczuk’s known animal rights views come right to the fore. This book ranges from being a political treatise, a wonderful murder mystery, an ecological thriller and a commentary on aging.
Janina Duszejko is an elderly, highly eccentric spinster who is an accomplished astrologist and is an ex-engineer and builder of bridges. She lives in the beautiful Klodzko Valley on the border of Poland and Czech Republic. We learn that Janina is afflicted with a mysterious illness, and has an odd need to rename her fellow valley residents by their characteristics, so we have Oddball, Big Foot and Good News who populate her world. She is also darkly funny in her thoughts as she advocates for the animals, reports the poachers who range the valley to the police who do not respond as she thinks they should. Then high-ranking officials in the area start dying, and not from natural causes. There is also the mystery of what happened to her daughters, her two dogs. One of the victims is found with deer prints marking the snow all around him and Janina campaigns the police to investigate the animals, she believes they are taking revenge on the hunters.
We become deeply mired in Janina’s world that also includes the poet William Blake’s works and her partnership with Good News to translate his poetry into Polish. At times funny, often melancholy Janina's voice remains true throughout the novel with challenging views the current state of the world, climate change, sins against animals and the hypocrisy of the Christian church in a Poland that has veered significantly to the right of politics. It is definitely a crime noir novel but it is also so much more.The rhythm of the writing matches Janina’s personality, sometimes choppy with anger, sometimes lyrical with poetry, sometimes weary with illness but always keeping the reader emotionally and intellectually engaged as we try to solve the murders with Janina as our guide. I loved this book and will be looking for more of this wonderful Polish writer who challenges us to be more, act more for women’s and animal’s rights and to think harder about the status of our climate.
Jane Cowell, CEO, Yarra Plenty Regional Library