The Reading Women Challenge for 2021 (its last year, as it turns out) contains two challenges which surprisingly caused me some consternation – I didn’t have anything in my nearly 600 book deep to read list that was a book written by an Eastern European woman and/or a crime novel or thriller in translation. I spent time on and off all year hunting up a book that could work for both – it had to be out there and the whole point of this is to stretch my reading habits. And I’ve not been reading enough translated works lately as it is (this is only my second all year, and I have one more on deck).
What I found was Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Tokarczuk is a leading Polish author, (she recently won the Nobel Prize for literature for her book Flights) and Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a study of the shadowy spaces between sanity and madness, righteousness and tradition. The novel was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize, Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ translation was also longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature.
The novel tells the story of a remote Polish village, and one of its residents. Mrs. Duszejko devotes the winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake with her friend, and taking care of the summer homes her neighbors leave behind each winter. Mrs. Duszejko is also a Civil Engineer, English Teacher, and committed Vegetarian. She has a reputation as a crank and a recluse which is amplified by her not at all a secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Mrs. Duszejko inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay an old lady any mind.
Her characterization as an eccentric old lady that is often treated with skepticism or even derision by other characters, further endearing her to the reader. But, without giving anything away, this book features perhaps the most unreliable narrator I’ve come across in a while, or maybe she’s just the oddest narrator who happens to be purposefully unreliable. The whodunnit, and how, isn’t revealed until near the very end, and it puts everything we have learned from Mrs. Duszejko into a new light. This is a complex book my brain is still working through, and I’m still not sure if I liked it.