The novel of 2019 Nobel Prize winner for Literature Olga Tokarczuk describes the life of eccentric recluse, Janina (a name that she hates), in a small remote village in Poland, which is home to only a few residents. The novel starts with the untimely death of Janina’s neighbor, whom she refers to as Bigfoot. Janina and another neighbor, Oddball (her name for him) discover that Bigfoot probably died by choking on a bone; however, shortly after the incident, a few more seemingly unrelated and strange deaths occur in the village. The deaths seem to have a couple of things in common. First, the “victims” are all members of the hunting club, and second, their deaths seem to be related to the animals they hunted, as animal tracks or other traces are found in and around the different “crime scenes.” Janina, being a bit eccentric in her beliefs and lifestyle, is convinced that the victims were murdered by the animals they hunted for revenge.
Intriguing as the story is, Janina’s life as well as those of her friends are even more so. Told from her perspective, the novel reveals strange bits and pieces of Janina’s life as the story unfolds. From the disjointed narrative, we learn that she is past middle age, a part-time grade school English teacher, a former bridge engineer, an environmentalist, an animal rights advocate, and a firm believer and practitioner of astrology. Despite working as a caretaker for several houses in the village, not much is revealed about why she chose to stay permanently in the small town, which seems to be covered in snow most of the year. She also describes the various ailments she suffers from, from the mundane to the extreme. However, based on her own stories and account, readers may start to doubt her mental state as well as her narrative, including her ailments, background, and reality.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead is not your typical murder mystery. Although the deaths form the basis of the story, Janina’s state of mind, beliefs, life, and emotions, including her confusion and loneliness, are reflected brilliantly in her narrative by the author’s superb writing. Despite the deep themes of the novel, such as animal cruelty, discrimination, corruption, and depression, it is unexpectedly funny, especially Janina’s description of her neighbors and the different names she gives people. However, it is also disturbing, as it brings to light issues that are often ignored by society.
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2018) – Olga Tokarczuk
Riverhead books; 274 (tpb)
Personal rating: 3/5