Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Olga Tokarczuk may not be all too famous in the Western world, but she has certainly earned her stripes over in Europe, earning many prestigious awards along the way. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead might be one of her more interesting novels, following the trials and tribulations of an older reclusive woman living in a small Polish village where people are turning up dead under strange circumstances. She tries to insert herself into the investigation, certain she knows who the culprit is… but much to the chagrin of new victims, nobody seems interested in her ideas.
Table of contents
Olga Tokarczuk Opens the Strange Polish Murders
Though most of us are fortunate enough to have a literal physical voice we can use, the fact of the matter is, for the majority of strangers this voice might as well be dead air. Shouting is one thing, but being truly heard and listened to in this world takes a large amount of effort, not to mention the contextual factors which need to align. If what you’re telling people isn’t what they are looking to hear, some perseverance and good will are generally necessary to break through, something our heroine learns in Olga Tokarczuk‘s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
Taking us to a small remote Polish village, the book introduces us to Janina, a reclusive older woman who generally spends her days translating William Blake poems, studying astrology and earning her money by taking care of wealthy people’s summer homes. The people of the village have known her for a long time and accepted her as one of their own, despite her persisting crankiness and clear preference for the company of animals rather than humans. Life is going about as well as it can for her, until the day her neighbour, Big Foot, suddenly turns up dead.
Soon after the small village finds itself completely upturned by the discovery of numerous other bodies, all found under very strange circumstances. The local authorities aren’t exactly experienced nor are they trained to deal with this sort of scenario, and as Janina feels it, the killer is about to slip through everyone’s grasp, and likely disappear forever.
As tensions mount and suspicions begin to build up, Janina attempts to insert herself into the investigation, certain she knows who did it, or at least confident in her ability to find the proper culprit. Unfortunately, her long-standing reputation in the village is making it difficult for people to pay mind to her and take her ideas seriously… if only they knew the power of the voice they were pushing away.
The Peculiar Detective
I would be lying if I said I didn’t immediately feel a sort of Miss Marple-esque atmosphere to this book, and this is probably what drew me in above anything else. Was I correct in my assumption? Well, to begin with, our main protagonist, Janina, isn’t exactly as courteous or lovable as Agatha Christie‘s crime-solving granny, she certainly doesn’t feel any less capable or talented. Consistently underestimated by everyone around her, she simply continues forward on her path, no matter how outlandish her ideas might be coming across.
It took me a bit of time to warm up to her and the preexisting disdain she has for the world around her, especially her neighbours; as we learn more and more about her life, her past, and her relations with people, she becomes easier to understand and sympathize with. Well before the halfway point of the book I already found myself rooting for her and the unusual way she has of looking at the world, most notably manifesting itself in her search for connections between astrology and real world events.
The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.― Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
The story is told pretty much entirely from her perspective, and though the location might be remote and our protagonist on the older side of the age scale, the events actually unfold fairly quickly and the plot rarely stops to take a rest. Helpless, we watch the body count rise higher and higher while Janine and the local authorities are grasping at the smallest pieces of evidence in hopes of unravelling the correct thread. As far as mysteries go, I found this to be a very engaging whodunit which can certainly rank somewhere on the higher pantheon of the genre.
The Philosophy of Life, Death, and Voice
Up until now, what I’ve written would probably lead you to believe this book was a mere murder mystery and not much more. On the contrary, Tokarczuk has imbued this story with a truly profound philosophical study of certain aspects of human existence, such as life versus death and who can be deemed truly worthy of having a voice. While it doesn’t feel like this aspect of the book takes the centre stage very often, its presence in the background is nearly always perceptible and inevitably gives a more profound colour to the events we might be experiencing.
Though the plot largely flows uninterrupted, the author does take a bit of time for some little cutaways and whatnot, not only to explore her philosophical ideas but also to give us a bit more of an idea of what life in the Polish countryside is like. These moments also help the pacing in a way, preventing us from getting worn by the ever-advancing mystery. It is honestly refreshing to see Olga Tokarczuk capable of mixing their personal meditations so naturally and organically into the story, to the point where they almost feel as integral to the plot as the murders and the investigation itself.
If there was one philosophical aspect of the book which really stood out for me above all the rest, it was the Tokarczuk‘s exploration of voice. Throughout the entire story we witness Janina struggling to be taken seriously and communicating with the rest of the village, with the author essentially asking us to reflect on how much the content of what we say has to do with people’s willingness to listen to us.
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How much importance do we give to people’s words over our perception of them?
How strongly are we swayed by our preexisting opinions of people?
In the end, how much of a voice do we really have if so few are willing to listen?
Just some food for though to go along with a series of bizarre murders and even stranger explanations.
The Final Verdict
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarzcuk is a very engaging whodunit murder mystery with the distinction of having some interesting philosophical ideas and debates woven into it. If you’re looking for an entertaining and unusual murder mystery with the power to make you think for a while after you finish it, then I highly recommend you give this book a try.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.― Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Olga Tokarczuk is a Polish psychologist, essayist, screenwriter, poet and author who had the distinction of winning the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights. Additionally, the novel also earned her Poland’s top literary prize, the Nike Award, as well as the German-Polish International Bridge Prize. Her other notable works include The Doll and the Pearl, The Moment of the Bear and Jacob’s Scriptures.