Drive your Plough over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Yet another selection from my Foyles’ A Year of Books (personal) book club. I absolutely loved this and even though I’d heard of Tokarczuk I had read none of her work until this one. Well I’m heading to London (and Foyles) this weekend and so will look out her other books, as well. I also have to say I love the clean design lines  of the Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Drive your Plough over the Bones of the Dead was published in Polish in 2009 and was translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published in 2018. I love Blake poetry which  provides both motif and title for this novel that challenges both genre and style. It’s a little bit memoir-like, a lot detective and a whole lot literary fiction – what can you expect with continual references to a Romantic poet set in the border lands between the Czech Republic and Poland?

Borders and liminal spaces abound in this story of an older woman who is reviewing her life and her choices. She’s an animal lover who as a consequence has stopped eating meat. She’s a reader and translator of Blake poetry and a volunteer teacher of language. In the remote village that she’s living in she performs a sort of caretaker role for the summer cottagers. She’s usually alone but during the course of the novel she gathers sympathisers around her and it’s clear this is pretty unusual for her. She has the reputation as a bit of a crank but as a reader I felt that this was probably how she would want it to be.

Janina Duszejko hates her first name and hates when her last name is mispronounced so it makes it all the funnier that she never, or at least rarely, uses anyone’s given name but makes up names that she finds more fitting – Oddball, Big Foot etc. It feeds into her image of herself as a cranky old woman but her actions don’t always support this image. She’s very caring to Dizzy, her Blake buddy, who visits every Friday night so that they can continue to translate Blake into Polish. There’s a poignant scene when things are not going well and she talks about how much she cares for Dizzy and doesn’t want him to think that she is a lunatic. The cranky-old-woman-mask starts to crack and the readers see her as she really is, or do we?

And this is what I loved the most about this book: it’s a ride for the characters and a ride for the readers. I was swept along with the crime and the attempts to solve it so that it’s solution was something I was looking forward to. It’s a magnificent book and I’m very much looking forward to reading more of her work. This is what I’ve loved the most about The Year of Books – the discovery of new-to-me works and authors. The world at my fingertips – fantastic.

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