Book Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk (Riverhead Books, 2019)

I received an Advance Readers’ Copy of this book. It is now available for sale in North America.

It’s hard to know how to classify a book like this. It’s not a mystery though there is a mystery at the centre of it. It’s not a thriller but it does leave you with an unsettling feeling all the way through. It’s certainly not a comedy but it does have some moments that are quite funny.

Our narrator is Janina, but don’t call her that because she doesn’t like her name. Names are important to her though and she has a tendency to rename most people she comes in contact with, to names that she believes suit them better. The story opens when her neighbour, Oddball, calls on her to visit the home of another neighbour, Bigfoot. Bigfoot has died and they are the first on the scene. An all around unpleasant man, no one seems to mourn Bigfoot’s death. Janina particularly dislikes him because he was a hunter and so it seems fitting that he has apparently choked on the bone of a deer that he killed.

Tokarczuk immediately sets the scene. The story is set in a remote area of Poland, on the border of the Czech Republic. (I particularly enjoyed this setting because I once hiked a nearby mountain from the Czech Republic across the border into Poland.) Janina, Oddball, and Bigfoot are the only inhabitants who remain in their region all winter, most other houses belonging to summer residents. It is dark, remote, and wild. We see the strangeness of the people who are drawn to live in a place all year round and how their relationships work even as they are drawn inwards.

Things get stranger and creepier when only a few weeks later, a second body is found. Then another. Clearly, a murderer is loose. Janina is convinced that the animals are taking vengeance on the hunters but her friends tell her her theory is crazy and the local police ignore her.

Janina is an interesting choice as narrator. She’s smart and observant but also clearly insane. But Tokarczuk keeps the reader fascinated by toeing the line of not revealing just how insane Janina is. Is she an eccentric hermit with some strange passions or is there something more behind her? She is also fascinated with astrology and mapping out the destinies of everyone around her (including the recently deceased). At the same time, she engages in educated debates and enjoys translating the works of William Blake with her friend and former student.

The translation of this novel also deserves great credit. The version I read was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. While I can’t compare to the original Polish I think it’s fair to say Lloyd-Jones did a skilled job. Translation (from English to Polish and then back to English) is a major subject in Janina’s life, and the book is filled with innuendos and carefully chosen words.

I’m not at all surprised that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead won the Man Booker Prize. To be honest, I found it more approachable than some of the other Booker winners I read and I think there is much here for readers to appreciate and enjoy, especially if you enjoy strange, atmospheric fiction.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk”

    1. Thanks! I think you would like it. Somehow, I was convinced that I read a review from you already and I was searching your blog for it. Obviously it wasn’t you but now I have no idea whose review of this book got me interested in it!

    2. Ooh, I’m not sure! I know Rachel @ pace, amore, libri has been excited about it for a while and is planning to pick it up soon, so I’ve definitely seen it mentioned on her blog. Other than that, I can’t think if I’ve seen a review of it recently…

  1. Love the title! (Even though the spelling of ‘plough’ would drive me as insane as Janina…) This sounds intriguingly weird and refreshingly different – I’ll have to look out for it.

    1. I was sooo tempted to spell it correctly but thought it best to stick to the spelling the book uses. It doesn’t come up much in the book itself so that shouldn’t bother you!

  2. I love the way this funky plot, assuming animals actually are killing hunters, sounds like it comes right out of a B-movie some college students shot as an semester-end project! I also like the sound of the main character. She’s not a detective, and she’s not a snoopy cozy mystery sleuth, but she’s involved and sounds a bit wacky.

    1. I hadn’t thought about it that way but now that you mention it it does sound like a Scooby Doo plot! It’s a hard book to categorize because it’s not exactly a mystery as no one is really trying to solve the murders. There’s sort of a twist but it’s laid out in such a way that it’s more of a slow revealing than a sudden surprise. She is definitely wacky but she’s not a funny character. I’m curious to read more from this author now to see if her other book is similar.

    2. See, I like the reveal that is a bit slow so that when I get to the twist I know it just an INSTANT before it happens because it was so obvious all along.

  3. I didn’t realize this book was just coming out now in North America-do you remember Laura Frey reviewing it? I think she really liked it, but that was awhile ago, so maybe she got a copy from elsewhere?

    1. The dates are all kind of confusing. From what I can tell, it was first published in 2009 and then translated into English late in 2018 but not available in North America until this August. As far as I can tell there is just the one English translation so I’m not sure why the delay for it to reach us over here.

      I don’t know if I’d seen Laura Frey’s review already. (I’ve been trying to remember who put this book on my radar and it’s driving me crazy!) From what I can see she must have had an ARC but way earlier than the rest of us!

  4. Just finished this and I completely agree with your review! It’s a tricky one to classify, but it was so unique and engaging. (Though it didn’t win the International Booker – her other novel Flights did! I haven’t read that yet but I’ve heard it’s difficult and brilliant and quite different from this one.)

  5. […] Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I mean, Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize this year so I’m far from alone in thinking this book is pretty amazing. Weird, wonderful, unsettling, complex, disturbing. There are so many adjectives you could use to describe Tokarczuk’s writing. She succeeds at creating a truly unique character and the book is very quirky but still entirely readable. […]

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