Book Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” by Olga Tokarczuk (the Nobel prize in literature winner) is an astounding novel.
Imagine an Agatha Christie like murder mystery (and that already is high praise, because Christie knew how to spin a murder mystery plot like few other writers do). Now set it in a “Fargo” like setting, including the hostile weather, the small town, the eccentric people, and the quirky, pragmatic and deeply insightful main character (if this is ever made into a movie, Frances McDormand would make a perfect Mrs. Duszejko). Now cast it all in fantastic prose, tie it to Blake, to Eastern European history, to morality plays and religious texts, and finally, to the ultimate revenge narrative, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Mrs. Duszejko isn’t a brooding sailor exposing the cruelty, corruption and foibles of upper-class French society, but she most definitely is woman in her 60s doing the same for the chauvinistic, cruel, corrupt, hunting neighbours around her.
Tokarczuk created a Character (with a big, bold, capital “C”) like no other. Mrs. Duszejko is the heart, the essence, the meaning and the end of “Drive Your Plow”. She is our way into the story, she maps out our way through it, and she judges us in the end. How we feel about her after the final page says more about us than it says about her. She is a character both full of contradictions and yet an integrated, believable whole at the same time. She is an engineer and a teacher, with a solid STEM background, that is also an astrology believer and practitioner. She is a non-religious person that constantly talks about God, a recluse that keeps making friends, a cynic that somehow manages to see good in people at their worst moments. She’s rational and pragmatic, and also deeply emotional and oftentimes impulsive. She’s powerful and fit, and a frail invalid. And she’s completely, utterly, with every molecule of her being, a real and believable human being. She’s a more believable person than I am, astrology and all.
The way that Tokarczuk ties the men’s treatment of Mrs. Duszejko (and other women) to the way they treat animals is masterful. “Drive Your Plow” could have been a parable, an allegory, a morality play, and yet it performs all that and so much more without driving the reader away. Like “Fargo,” it could have been a meaningless farce in less adept hands, and yet it manages to deal with issues that we have learned to be cynical about (the value of life, particularly as deemed valuable or useless by important men) with great earnestness and sensitivity.
There is much of Agatha Christie in the construction of the plot (particularly “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express”). There is much of Blake in the morality and moral outlook of certain characters. There is much of Dumas in the social observations tied to the revenge plot, and there are many post modern writers that are echoed in Mrs. Duszejko’s first person narrative. The result, however, is entirely unique, entirely Tokarczuk’s own, and well worth reading even if you have never enjoyed any of the authors echoed in the narrative. “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a modern masterpiece, and one that is deeply moving and thought provoking at the same time.