I feel like just about everyone knows an odd old woman with passionate interest in niche subjects like bark beetles or William Blake, and no respect for the boundaries of others. Strange and nosy, but more or less harmless, as long as you don’t have an HOA. Yet from this familiar archetype, Olga Tokarczuk makes an utterly strange but compelling character and story in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Tokarczuk’s odd old woman is named Janina, who lives in a remote village in Poland and commutes into the nearest town to teach English to schoolchildren; in the evenings, she and a friend translate William Blake, or she cares for the abandoned summer homes of the village’s wealthy sunbird residents. She’s earned her reputation as a grump, but one who keeps to herself. Hers is a small and tightly wound existence, but a quiet one.
Then her neighbor dies. This is not a spoiler—it’s actually at the very beginning of the book, yet it upends Janina’s life, not to mention the unspoken order kept in the village. The neighbor died from choking on a bite of poached venison, and Janina concludes quickly that the spirit of the murdered deer took its revenge upon him. As more and more bodies of hunters pile up, each found in increasingly odd and disturbing circumstances, Janina tells her theory to anyone who will listen and spams the police department with letters urging them to investigate the victims’ crimes against forest creatures. Yet her proclamations, coupled with her uncharacteristically public confrontations with some of the hunters about their deeds, only lands her at the top of the suspect list.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is, fittingly for its protagonist, an odd little book. It was first published in Polish in 2009 and only hit English-speaking bookshelves in 2018. Over three hundred or so pages, Tokarczuk spins a dreamy tale that is part mystery, part fairy tale, and part horror, all rendered into English beautifully by translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Janina’s found family is a motley little bunch but they become fiercely loyal as the noose tightens around Janina, and despite her brash nature that was off-kilter at the best of times and off-putting at the worst, I found myself deeply invested in her fate and figuring out the mystery around her account as an obviously unreliable narrator.
There’s more I’d like to say about this book but this is one case where I am adamant about not spilling even a single bean. Part of the madness and pleasure of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is how unpredictably each layer of the story folds back to reveal an even stranger layer beneath. This is one of those books you can talk about with someone who has read it but cannot ever quite explain it to someone who has not. I know what I said about the bodies piling up and the murders getting weirder every time, but this is not a plot that you can explain beyond the point of the setup. It’s incredible how quickly each new killing recedes into the larger story that is more than strange enough to accommodate it.
I don’t think Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is for everyone. It does not, for starters, move at the pace of the thriller. Every time another body is found, for example, Janina seems to be far more interested in things that I at the reader found far less interesting, a quirk that contributes to the overall satisfaction of the ending but does a poor job of following the breakneck structure of a more typical book. If you need further proof, count up how many times I used “odd” and “strange” and “weird” to write about it. But if it is a story that piques your interest, it will reward you handsomely. There’s a reason Tokarcuk won the Nobel Prize in literature. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead will follow you like the spirit of a deer haunting a poacher, but in the best way possible.
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