I received an Advance Readers’ Copy of this book. It is now available for sale in North America.
It’s hard to know how to classify a book like this. It’s not a mystery though there is a mystery at the centre of it. It’s not a thriller but it does leave you with an unsettling feeling all the way through. It’s certainly not a comedy but it does have some moments that are quite funny.
Our narrator is Janina, but don’t call her that because she doesn’t like her name. Names are important to her though and she has a tendency to rename most people she comes in contact with, to names that she believes suit them better. The story opens when her neighbour, Oddball, calls on her to visit the home of another neighbour, Bigfoot. Bigfoot has died and they are the first on the scene. An all around unpleasant man, no one seems to mourn Bigfoot’s death. Janina particularly dislikes him because he was a hunter and so it seems fitting that he has apparently choked on the bone of a deer that he killed.
Tokarczuk immediately sets the scene. The story is set in a remote area of Poland, on the border of the Czech Republic. (I particularly enjoyed this setting because I once hiked a nearby mountain from the Czech Republic across the border into Poland.) Janina, Oddball, and Bigfoot are the only inhabitants who remain in their region all winter, most other houses belonging to summer residents. It is dark, remote, and wild. We see the strangeness of the people who are drawn to live in a place all year round and how their relationships work even as they are drawn inwards.
Things get stranger and creepier when only a few weeks later, a second body is found. Then another. Clearly, a murderer is loose. Janina is convinced that the animals are taking vengeance on the hunters but her friends tell her her theory is crazy and the local police ignore her.
Janina is an interesting choice as narrator. She’s smart and observant but also clearly insane. But Tokarczuk keeps the reader fascinated by toeing the line of not revealing just how insane Janina is. Is she an eccentric hermit with some strange passions or is there something more behind her? She is also fascinated with astrology and mapping out the destinies of everyone around her (including the recently deceased). At the same time, she engages in educated debates and enjoys translating the works of William Blake with her friend and former student.
The translation of this novel also deserves great credit. The version I read was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. While I can’t compare to the original Polish I think it’s fair to say Lloyd-Jones did a skilled job. Translation (from English to Polish and then back to English) is a major subject in Janina’s life, and the book is filled with innuendos and carefully chosen words.
I’m not at all surprised that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead won the Man Booker Prize. To be honest, I found it more approachable than some of the other Booker winners I read and I think there is much here for readers to appreciate and enjoy, especially if you enjoy strange, atmospheric fiction.