She might not be a household name, but Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk is a crucial auditor of our shape-shifting times. Her previous novel Flights won the International Man Booker last year, and she is regularly compared to weights as heavy as WG Sebald and Milan Kundera. She has the wonder and expressiveness of the former, and the yearning and playfulness of the latter, but she also embraces a unique kind of Eastern European magical realism and enjoys an offbeat dark humour that is quite her own.
Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead centres around Mrs Duszejko, an animal-loving teacher in her late sixties who lives alone in a remote Polish village. She begins the novel bereft due to the disappearance of her two beloved dogs. Then members of the local hunting club are murdered, and she is pulled into the ensuing investigation. That’s ostensibly the plot, but it’s a fraction of what’s really happening.
Mrs. Duszejko’s singular voice is increasingly intoxicating as the novel goes on, as quirkily akin to Wall-E and Bob Dylan as the romantic poets
Entering Mrs. Duszejko’s rich, eccentric world is like waking up in Oz, or falling into Wonderland. Everything, from the unreliable mobile phone signal to the patterns of the wind, is attributed character and motivation, so that the whole universe shimmers with intent, agency and hidden meaning. A kind of cosmic Sherlock, she is surrounded by angels, devils and ghosts, all shivering under a story-telling starry black sky. The constant, almost Virgil-like, company of fellow seer of transplendence William Blake, whose books she is helping a friend translate, serves to further heighten the sensation of a world burning bright.
If this sounds unnervingly close to Ben Okri style mawkishness, rest assured; Tokarczuk is far too sophisticated and intelligent a writer to wander through a novel being constantly over-awed by beauty and OMG amazingness. In fact, Mrs Duszejko’s world is imbued with menace and loss, and her response couldn’t be further than that of a simpering damsel. She’s as prone to surges of violent rage as she is to beatific outbursts. Anger, she says, while battering the door of a neighbour’s shed with a hammer to release an imprisoned dog, restores the gift of Clarity of Vision. A nondescript old woman buoyed by a murder mystery, there are nevertheless times when she sounds more like Patrick Bateman than Miss Marple.
Mrs. Duszejko’s singular voice is increasingly intoxicating as the novel goes on, operating like a highly knowledgable, but unnerving and possibly mad, spirit guide, as quirkily akin to Wall-E and Bob Dylan as the romantic poets. “Finally transformed into tiny quivering photons,” she concludes, “each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world.” Amen.
New Zealander Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? is an extremely charming essay collection, comprised mainly of snapshots of Young’s life from childhood onwards; walking across gravel roads hand in hand with an imaginary Paul McCartney, starting to write, falling in love, discovering yoga, struggling with shyness, experiencing grief.
She can be funny, self-effacing and romantic, but most impressive are her extraordinary powers of observation, as if God hot-wired a microscope and a movie camera into her brain. With the most elegant, evocative prose, she invites us to move in with her and her family, and seems so wise about so many things I could hardly believe she was real. A wonderful book, an irresistible woman.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), out now (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99)
Can You Tolerate This? Ashleigh Young, out now (Bloomsbury, £14.99)