Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
Published by Riverhead Books, 2019 (first published in 2009)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This is the kind of mixed review that I feel deserves a preface: I can recognise that this is a fantastic book, fully deserving of its critical acclaim. Whilst a couple of things didn’t work for me stylistically, I was consistently impressed by the quality of Tokarczuk’s work, and the skill of Lloyd-Jones’s translation.
The plot centres around an elderly Polish woman who lives in a remote village close to the Czech border. Her love for nature and staunch belief in astrology put her into direct conflict with the community of hunters around her. And when those hunters start dying one-by-one, she is adamant that animals are rising up to take revenge against humans.
Marketing this book must have been a nightmare, as it completely defies all categorisation and genre convention. That said, describing it as a mystery and a thriller feels counterintuitive, partly because of its slower pacing and contemplative tone, but largely because the identity of whodunnit (and why) is wholly obvious from the beginning. It made the eventual reveal miss for me, coming off as anti-climactic and info-dumpy, recounting past events from a different angle rather than offering new insight. If the mystery framing of the narrative had been ditched, Tokarczuk could have delved far deeper into the fascinating psyche of her protagonist from the get to, fully embracing the character study this clearly wanted to be.
On a personal level, I also wasn’t keen on the numerous lengthy tangents into the nature of astrology. Though they tied into the book’s look at fate versus free will, they were very jargon heavy and dry for someone with no real interest in or knowledge of the area.
On the other hand, there was much to admire. I really Liked the evocation of setting and atmosphere, and the singularity of the narrative voice. The quality of the prose is excellent, and Tokarczuk touches on a number of other interesting themes – including animal welfare, society’s dismissal of women, the line between defiance and madness, and the lamentations of life in an aging body. The frequent capitalisation of improper nouns was also noteworthy. It’s a simple but effective way to show our narrator’s different worldview, as she elevates animal species, the landscape, and her beloved horoscopes and astrology to the same level of importance as people – or perhaps even gods. It helps Tokarczuk to pose her novel’s primary question: Why should humans have the right to place their own worth above everything else?
You can pick up a copy of Drive Your Plow… from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!