Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk

translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Fitzcarraldo Editions 2019
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020
Janina is an old woman who lives in a small hamlet in the mountains in southern Poland, staying there over the winter and keeping an eye on the houses of those who come up only for the warmer part of the year. First one of her two over-wintering neighbours is found dead, then a whole series of hunters start being killed, starting with the police commandant from the nearby town. Janina's theory, which no one takes seriously, is that the animals are responsible.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a satisfying thriller, an unexpectedly easy read with an unexpectedly happy ending, but its real appeal comes from the powerful and completely compelling first person narration. Three centuries ago Janina would have been burned as a witch: she is a practitioner of astrology, a proponent of animal rights, and a feminist with no respect for authority. (She is also a fan of the poetry of William Blake, which provides the title and chapter headings and perhaps her tendency to capitalise significant nouns.)

Janina's narrative gradually reveals details of her life and character, but she is also a shrewd and insightful observer of the world around her. Capable of both deep sympathy and nearly incoherent anger, she categorises both her friends and enemies, labelling them based on their key attributes and favourite interjections. She also offers a vivid, snow-bright depiction of a landscape and a community. The controversial part of this is its indictment of central strands of Polish culture, notably hunting and the Catholic Church, but that's only a small part of her broad-ranging philosophical ruminations, which include idiosyncratic but analytical reflections on everything from health and ageing to weather reports.

"As I make myself coffee, they are usually reading the weather forecast for skiers. They show a bumpy world of mountains, slopes and valleys, with a capricious layer of snow – the Earth's rough skin is only whitened here and there by snowfields. In spring the skiers are replaced by allergy sufferers, and the picture takes on colour. Soft lines establish the danger zones. Where there is red, nature's attack is the fiercest. All winter it has been dormant, waiting to assail Mankind's immune system, fragile as filigree. One day it will get rid of us entirely in this way. Before the weekend, weather forecasts for drivers appear, but their world is reduced to the few rare lines marking this country's motorways. I find this division of people into three groups - skiers, allergy sufferers and drivers - very convincing. It is a good, straightforward typology. Skiers are hedonists. They are carried down the slopes. Whereas drivers prefer to take their fate in their hands, although their spines often suffer as a result; we all know life is hard. Whereas the allergy sufferers are always at war. I must surely be an allergy sufferer."

Drive Your Plow integrates story and character and ideas in a rare treat: a novel which is both philosophical and fun.

January 2020

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%T Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
%A Tokarczuk, Olga
%M Polish
%F Lloyd-Jones, Antonia
%I Fitzcarraldo Editions
%D 2019 [2009]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781910695715
%P 270pp