Book Review: Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a murder mystery, but not as you know it

Janina Duszejko (though never call her Janina) lives just outside an isolated village. She spends her days tending to the empty holiday homes nearby, teaching at the local school, and mourning the disappearance of her two beloved dogs. But when prominent members of the local hunting club are found dead, Duszejko is on the case. Part murder mystery, part analysis of William Blake’s poetry, and part treatise on animal rights, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is likely  to be not even close to what you expect.

First published in 2009 and adapted into a film in 2017, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel is now finally available in English, thanks to translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Tokarczuk, the first Polish winner of the Man Booker International Prize (for her novel Flights in 2017) has achieved some notoriety in her native Poland, leaning distinctly left in an increasingly right focused country. And it’s safe to say that much of that subversive character abounds throughout the text, with Duszejko’s eccentricities managed beautifully by Lloyd-Jones’ translation. Honestly, watch out in particular for the five interpretations of a Blake verse, all translated from the English into Polish and then into English again, and see if you can’t appreciate just how good Lloyd-Jones is at her job.

As the bodies start to mount up in and around the village, it’s tempting to dive in and treat Drive Your Plow like a traditional crime novel, but as Duszejko painstakingly explains her astrology charts, writes increasingly frustrated letters to the local police, and (rather convincingly) blames local wildlife for the murders, the scene is definitely set for something quite different. The end result is a wonderfully weird twist on a Miss Marple type tale, with a kooky, older lead who really isn’t quite what she seems.

I’ve no intention of revealing just whodunnit but I can say that the finale is really quite satisfying, and it certainly fulfills that crime thriller goal of making perfect sense within the book’s world. That being said, if I’d reviewed Drive Your Plow immediately after finishing, it likely would have been a star lower than it is now. That’s not because it requires deep and meaningful contemplation, or time away to process, but simply because it’s not really about the big reveal. A little odd for something billed as a murder mystery, I think you’ll agree. But no, the real meat of the story is in everything that comes before – the characterisations, the flashbacks, the rich scenery, and, of course, in Duszekjo’s irresistible (if delightfully unreliable) narration. Focus on all of that, and not just the murders, and you’re in for a wonderful time. As Tokarczuk herself said, “writing a book to know who is the killer is wasting paper and time.”

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a curious book. Try describing it out loud to a friend, and you’ll likely have them picturing something altogether different to what it actually is. This is noir but not as you know it; darkly funny, politically charged, fiercely feminist, and occasionally just a little bit weird, and it’s a wonderful salute to both Lloyd-Jones’ sensitive translation and Tokarczuk’s outspoken beliefs.


Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is available now through Text Publishing.

Jodie Sloan

Living, writing, and reading in Brisbane/Meanjin. Likes spooky books, strong cocktails, and pro-wrestling.