Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

“In a remote Polish village, Janina Duszejko devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind…” Goodreads

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was written by Olga Tokarczuk and published in Polish in 2009. It was then translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published in English in 2018. Tokarczuk is a well-regarded writer, activist, and public intellectual. She won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for her novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) and in 2019 she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a Polish translator and received the 2018 Transatlantyk Award for the most outstanding promoter of Polish literature abroad.

There was a lot of hype on the internet after the novel was published in English in 2018. Everyone was talking about Olga Tokarczuk, she was on every website and in every news article that I read. She won the Man Book International Prize in 2018 for her novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and was recently awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. A great win, not only for female literature but for translated literature as well. I read a lot of reviews about both Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and I decided that Drive Your Plow… was more up my street – I love a crime fiction novel, television series, film, you name it! So, it was a fairly easy decision for me.

I found the novel compelling and once I got into it, I had to finish the book and find out who the murderer was. One of the main reasons I liked Drive Your Plow… was the characters. The characters didn’t draw me in immediately, but once you got to know more about them and their backgrounds they came alive.

At first, Mrs. Duszejko, the protagonist, was a bit rough around the edges but I warmed to her quite quickly. She’s an older lady who teaches English to the school children and looks after her neighbours’ houses and gardens. She’s a sturdy Grandma type who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. I was surprised at her deep knowledge of and interest in astrology. It was an aspect of her character that I hadn’t expected, especially considering one of her other passions is translating William Blake’s poetry. The two aspects of her character juxtapose each other, but they complement each other as well.

I enjoyed the relationships that Mrs. Duszejko has with the two men in her life – Oddball, her neighbour, and Dizzy, a young former pupil who now works at the police station. Oddball, as his name suggests, is a bit odd and did a good impression of the classic grumpy old man and wasn’t particularly likeable. However, I began to warm to him as Mrs. Duszejko did in the story. I like the easy nature of their friendship – they are content to sit in silence with each other as well as partake in heated discussions together. The friendship has a very real element to it and you can feel it growing as the novel goes on.

In Dizzy’s case, his relationship with Mrs Duszejko is one of care and nurture, the two care and nurture each other equally and in different ways. She makes him dinner and they discuss their translations of William Blake’s poetry. The dynamic of their relationship stands them on equal ground; neither thinks they are superior to the other.

Mrs. Duszejko and her neighbours live on a plateau in the forest near to the Czech border. Tokarczuk’s vivid descriptions of the plateau and the forest give the whole novel an “other-worldly” feel. From Jannia reading people’s star signs to the forest that she lives in, you feel as though you’ve been transported to a mysterious world where everything looks the same as the real world but there’s something you can’t quite put your finger on as to what is different.

I had high expectations for this novel after reading so many reviews and it did not disappoint. The world of Mrs. Duszejko, Oddball, and Dizzy is a surreal mixture of fantasy and reality. Through her narrative, Tokarczuk has created a group of eccentric characters caught up in a mystery with a twist that you’ll never see coming.