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

My Rating: 4 stars

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a stunning piece of literary fiction that won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018. Janina lives in a middle-of-nowhere Polish village and is considered a crazy old woman by most of the people who live there. When various neighbors start turning up dead, she believes that animals are taking revenge for their mistreatment by hunters. This book is beautifully written, and credit must be given both to Tokarczuk as the author and to Lloyd-Jones as the translator. Sometimes I find the prose in translated works awkward and stilted, but that didn’t happen here at all. I listened to it on audiobook, which made it an even more pleasant experience. The reader, Beata Pozniak, has a wonderful, relaxing voice.

Janina is an expertly drawn character and a truly fascinating narrator. Sometimes it was easy to see her as the crazy old lady everyone else sees her as, but other times she makes perfect sense. I found it impossible to not love her. She spends her time studying astrology, translating the works of William Blake with her friend Dizzy, and fanatically promoting her view that the lives of animals matter and that hunting is immoral. She reminded me a little of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and I think fans of his work would really enjoy this book. She also has a habit of renaming everyone she meets based on what she feels their names should be, resulting in characters named Oddball, Dizzy, Good News, and Big Foot. Exploring her mind is certainly a journey.

There is an element of mystery as dead bodies keep appearing. Though I figured out the killer’s identity early on, I still enjoyed watching it unfold. A lot of the actual details of the murders surprised me. Just a quick note, if you are looking for standard mystery novel, I wouldn’t reach for this book. It is first and foremost literary fiction, and the mystery tends to take backseat to discussions of the morality of killing and consuming animals and the line between sanity and madness. I really enjoy literary fiction and I went in expecting that. But I know that’s definitely not for everyone, and someone expecting a more traditional mystery may end up disappointed.

It’s hard for me to quite pin down why this is a 4 star read for me rather than a 5 star. It’s really a mix of several small things. Sometimes Janina would go off on a long tangent and I would lose track of what was going on and the whole point of the section. I also would have liked a little more about the minor characters, such as Dizzy and Oddball. There is a lot of information about them in the book, but I felt that I never got to know them as people because everything is so filtered through Janina’s point of view. Again, these are just small things, but they did keep the book from being a 5 star read for me.

Overall, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a gorgeous novel that deserves all the praise it’s received. I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you’re interested in philosophical discussions of animals’ lives.

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