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

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk is another book I read on account of it being shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Tokarczuk won for Flights in 2018, and her House of Day, House of Night is on my Reading World Tour, though this book will take its place for the time being.

While Drive Your Plow is a mystery, the narrator and her many quirks steal the show. Janina looks after rich folks’ summer homes in rural Poland while translating William Blake and reading horoscopes. She’s pulled into the police investigation of her neighbor’s murder, but she’s not taken seriously because her primary contributions are star charts and the theory that her neighbor was killed by an animal as punishment for his poaching.

This book is more of a character study than story. Janina’s voice always intrudes with another of her theories or complaints. While she’s keen to probe her neighbor’s horoscope for insight into his death, she’s not sorry he’s dead:

In the summer he would wander about with a saw, cutting down trees full of sap. When I politely admonished him, though finding it hard to restrain my Anger, he replied in the simplest terms: “Get lost, you old crone.” But more crudely than that. He was always up to a bit of stealing, filching, fiddling, to make himself extra cash; when the summer residents left a flashlight or a pair of pruning shears in the yard, Big Foot would instantly nose out an opportunity to swipe those items, which he could then sell off in town. In my view he should have received several Punishments by now, or even been sent to prison. (7)

Big Foot’s worst offense, though, was his poaching. Janina often followed his route to disarm the traps set for animals, and was aggrieved each time she found animals already caught and killed by his traps. She cares more for animals than people, and her reverence for nature makes her theory—that Big Foot was killed by an animal—seem almost plausible. There are moments when it seems this story might tip into magical realism, and vengeful animals aren’t out of place in that world.

The slightly mystical feeling comes courtesy of Janina’s fixation on astrology. She claims she can determine the date of a person’s death if she knows the date and time of their birth. She makes firm claims on her abilities, but her examples of times that her astrology has predicted the future or explained the past are vague. Her obsession with astrology is part of the reason that she’s not taken seriously by most characters, though this doesn’t stop her from finding astrological connections everywhere:

In a natal Horoscope the date of birth determines the date of death as well. That’s obvious—anyone who has been born is going to die. There are many places in the Horoscope that point us toward the time and nature of death—one simply needs to know how to spot and connect them. For example, one has to check the transitory aspects of Saturn to the hyleg, and what’s going on in the eighth house. Also to cast an eye on the relative position of the Lights—meaning the Sun and Moon.

It is quite complicated, and it could be boring for anyone who isn’t an expert. (117)

How wonderfully self-aware. Or maybe not, because the next several pages also have to do with astrology. I won’t say these asides are boring, but they do occasionally provoke secondhand embarrassment. The eccentric older woman being ignored by the authorities (and everyone else) is a sad trope in literature, and few people have time for Janina’s long tangents and theories. When she sends horoscopes of the deceased to the police “in the expectation that the police Astrologer will consult them,” the reader knows those horoscopes are headed right for the trash. (160) I kept rooting for her, though I wouldn’t describe her as likable.

But whether or not she’s taken seriously, Janina is an excellent voice for this story. Between the astrological asides, she chronicles her Ailments (always capitalized) and espouses various philosophies. After Big Foot is found dead, several other murders occur. She muses her way from one crime scene to the next. And if you’re wondering about the name “Big Foot,” that’s part of Janina’s tendency to not call anyone by their given name:

The naming of Big Foot occurred in a similar way. It was quite straightforward—it suggested itself to me when I saw his footprints in the snow. To begin with, Oddball had called him “Shaggy,” but then he borrowed “Big Foot” from me. All it means is that I chose the right name for him.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t choose a suitable name for myself. I regard the one that’s written on my identity card as scandalously wrong and unfair—Janina. I think my real name is Emilia, or Joanna. Sometimes I think it’s something like Irmtrud too. Or Bellona. Or Medea. (19)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a unique novel. I can’t think of many comparisons, and those that come to mind imply spoilers. I’ve said this before, but in the last few years I’ve found I primarily enjoy books that are strange/unexpected but still build to a logical ending. I used to take a lot of satisfaction in predicting the next story beat, but don’t feel that way anymore.

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5.0) I enjoyed how the mystery unspooled. As interesting as I found the narrative style, I could never read more than a couple chapters at a time. Janina’s voice is best in short doses.

Image credit: Goodreads

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