Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead review
The striking tale told in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk features an eccentric narrator philosophizing about life, animals and astrology, all while leading us through a murky trail of bizarre deaths.

The story is told by Janina, who lives alone in an isolated Polish village. We never learn her age, but she frequently ruminates on growing older, the feeling that people view her as an old woman who's easy to ignore and dismiss, and ailments that prove painfully debilitating at times.

Poet William Blake weaves his way through the text, with lines of his poems introducing each chapter and Janina herself working with a friend to translate his poetry. Not to mention the title itself comes from Blake. I'm not very familiar with his work, but I'm sure his fans will find all kinds of Easter eggs in the book that I missed.

Janina is fascinating, intriguing, obstinate, obnoxious, good, bad – a fully developed character that you might both like and hate if you knew her. She's obsessed with astrology, and her thoughts on it occur so frequently they occasionally drag down a story that's otherwise a unique, compelling piece of work. Those beliefs are part of fleshing out that character and her motivations, so I understand why they're so prevalent, but it was a lot.

A woman of strong opinions who freely shares them but is rarely taken seriously, she isn't the most popular person with some in the village, especially people in positions of power that she openly challenges or derides. But then there's the hunters. She really, REALLY hates the hunters. A fact she also shares freely while she goes out of her way to thwart their efforts to kill animals.

All of that doesn't hasn't won her many fans, so she's often dismissed as not entirely sane and her opinions and complaints go unheeded. Yet she also manages to forge strong friendships with a few people that add richness to her world. However, she's also deeply troubled by compulsively tracking what she sees as the impact of the movements of the stars, fretting over the transgressions of the hunters, and mourning the disappearance of her "little girls" – the two dogs she dearly loves.

The character development here feels very vibrant, alive, real. I could imagine meeting this woman and finding her intriguing and exasperating, sympathetic and infuriating, all at the same time. The story and character are so original and engrossing that it's hard to describe and even harder to walk away from when the book ends.

Tokarczuk recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. To discover what kind of mad skills earn you that high honor, I highly recommend you crack the cover of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. She also won the 2018 International Booker Prize for Flights, a novel on my TBR list that sounds like another good option if you're curious about her work.

My initial thought on finishing Drive Your Plow was that it delivered an eerily icy satisfaction. I'm not sure I'd still put it exactly that way, but as my first thought when I turned the final page it's hard to banish. This complex work from an extremely skilled writer will definitely give you a lot to mull over as well.

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