Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

I’m torn. On the one hand, I feel like I should maybe read more mysteries because I didn’t see this ending coming any more than I saw the ending of Opium and Absinthe. At the same time I feel like this is better, because the ending would’ve lost all impact if I’d predicted it several chapters in advance. This is going to be a difficult review to write because I refuse to give the ending away for mystery books and, barring that, I’m not really sure what else I can talk about, but I’m going to try.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead introduces Janina Duszejko, an older woman living by herself in a remote village in Poland, not too far from the border of the Czech Republic. She isn’t particularly friendly with her neighbors, and spends her time studying astrology, tending to summer houses owned by wealthy city dwellers, and translating Blake with her former student, Dizzy. Her life takes a darker turn when she and her neighbor Oddball find their other neighbor Big Foot dead in his house, and, though Duszejko frequently badgers the police (for animal rights as well as on behalf of unexplained corpses), the bodies quickly pile up. As the crime scenes grow increasingly bizarre and the murderer starts to work their way up the village’s pecking order, Duszejko becomes obsessed with proving to the indifferent police that the stars and the local wildlife are colluding to bring justice to the men who routinely hunt in the woods surrounding the village. Intertwined with her investigation is the mystery of what happened to her two dogs, who went missing some time ago and now haunt her memories; and beneath it all is the broader question of why humans consider themselves better than animals.

This book was recommended to me by a BN bookseller, for which I both bless and curse his name. On the one hand I was already weighed down with a stack of books I could barely carry and I didn’t need another one and my bank account is no longer speaking to me, but on the other hand I’m glad he persisted because this book really checked off all the boxes for me. It’s dark, it’s fairy tale-themed, the protagonist is a literary nut with a knack for translations – I could go on. As a murder mystery it is excellent, but it’s also a year in the life of Mrs. Duszejko, part-time English teacher and seemingly harmless eccentric regarded with indulgent contempt by most of the village. Though her neighbors think of her as a caricature of the standard-issue crazy old lady, she is strong and healthy, and she drives a giant truck that looks like a commando vehicle. She’s intelligent, resourceful, funny as hell. She has observations and opinions on everything from animal rights to the proper way to make mustard soup to human naming conventions.

What a lack of imagination it is to have official first names and surnames. No one ever remembers them, they’re so divorced from the Person, and so banal that they don’t remind us of them at all. What’s more, each generation has its own trends, and suddenly everyone’s named Magdalena, Patryk, or—God forbid—Janina. That’s why I try my best never to use first names and surnames, but prefer epithets that come to mind of their own accord the first time I see a Person.

She also – in the fine tradition of every female character I’ve ever loved – is quite unabashed in sharing exactly what she knows. I suppose you could reasonably call her obnoxious, but it’s worth noting that the Police Commandant in the snippet below surrenders unconditionally, so you can’t say her methods don’t work.

“In Wrocław?” I exclaimed. “How can you say that? These are the responsibilities of the local police—I know the law.”

“Oh!” he said, smiling ironically. “So now you’re going to tell me what my responsibilities are, eh?”

In my mind’s eye I could see our troops drawn up on the plain, ready for battle.

“Yes, I’m only too happy to do so,” I said, gearing up for a longer speech.

With all of that said, I have a confession to make: I kinda skimmed over all the astrological ramblings. I’ve never bought into astrology, and, while I feel like I would’ve been able to appreciate the story more if I were into that kind of thing, the fact is I’m not. I’m actually somewhat curious to run this book by a friend of mine who is into astrology, because I’m pretty sure they’d find the astrology talk a lot more interesting than I did. In any case I can’t really speak to the accuracy of the astrology, but I appreciated it as a base note to the murders that kept stacking up despite the efforts of the police. Though I felt like it didn’t need to be as extensive as it was, it tied into the fairy tale theme nicely, and all in all I have no complaints about either the story or its motifs.

I do, however, have a question. The book supposedly takes some of its themes from Euripides’s Medea and the name Medea is in fact mentioned at one point, but, other than a very loose connection between the endings, I don’t really see it. If you’ve read this book, and if I hadn’t just mentioned the possible Medea theme, would you have caught it? I’ll admit that Medea is not at the forefront of my mind and in fact I still have yet to read it, but was this supposed to be more obvious than it was, or was it just a subtle background note?

Whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter; whether it’s inspired by Medea or not, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is an excellent read, and I literally just picked up the audiobook two seconds ago (to figure out, per usual, how the names are pronounced). If unconventional murder mysteries and modern-day fables are your thing, I highly recommend it.