Book Number: N/A
Read this book for: literary fiction, translated fiction, thriller, suspense, whodunnit, Polish fiction, eccentric narrator, female lead character
Quick Review: Beautifully written, intriguingly narrated; a curious, thoughtful, unconventional whodunnit.
In a remote Polish village, Janina Duszejko, an eccentric woman in her sixties, recounts the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. She is reclusive, preferring the company of animals to people; she’s unconventional, believing in the stars; and she is fond of the poetry of William Blake, from whose work the title of the book is taken. When members of a local hunting club are found murdered, Duszejko becomes involved in the investigation. By no means a conventional crime story, this existential thriller by ‘one of Europe’s major humanist writers’ (Guardian) offers thought-provoking ideas on our perceptions of madness, injustice against marginalized people, animal rights, the hypocrisy of traditional religion, belief in predestination – and caused a genuine political uproar in Tokarczuk’s native Poland.
DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD is a Man Booker International Prize longlisted novel by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and brought to the English-speaking market by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a small publisher in the UK.
Fitzcarraldo publishes one fiction book per month, and do not focus on crime novels; I was delighted to find this one on their list. Their focus tends to be much more toward “literary” fiction — the kind of questioning, inventive, novels designed to make you think about human themes in a new way or revel in technical rule-bending in the language. Crime fiction is frequently not counted among this type of fiction (unfortunately, but that’s another post), but here is a novel that ticks all of those boxes and manages to be a really interesting murder mystery at the same time.
The plot is actually a genuine whodunnit — a group of hunters seems to be dying one at a time in mysterious circumstances, and the police believe they are accidents. One of the three permanent inhabitants of a remote village, Mrs. Duszejko discovers several of them, although she is not particularly unhappy about their deaths, believing that nature is taking its revenge for their murders. This is a plot that has similarities across the crime genre, and on its own merit would make a wonderful addition to that group. The characters, writing, and themes are wonderful bonuses.
Mrs. Duszejko is one of the most intriguing narrators that has popped up in the crime genre in some time. She is in no way an investigator. She is an elderly lady who lives alone, looks after her neighbour’s cabins in the winter when they are not there, loves nature, and spends her free time studying astrology and testing her pet theories about the way the universe works. Following her through the motions of her life is intensely real, incredibly interesting, and refreshingly different from anything else in the crime genre — almost Marple-esque, if Miss Marple didn’t do any investigating on her own and only wrote the odd letter of concern to the police. Her interest in astrology has her ask the big questions about life’s meaning and purpose, and against this backdrop, the murders are almost muted for her.
This novel is also different from the typical crime novel in several other ways. The language Tokarczuk uses is beautiful, imbued with a sense of connection with the way the world moves. It also is unafraid to ask existential questions about people, their morals, and the human relationship to the planet and the animal population in particular. This is the biggest departure from the “typical” crime novel and makes this novel a much softer read and one you’ll definitely want to take the time to savour.
If you are looking for the excellent plotting of a crime novel but in a way that does not feel written like a crime novel, DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD. It’s well worth the read for it’s beautiful writing alone, and definitely deserves its place on this year’s Man Booker Longlist!