Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk (Text Publishing)
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Olga Tukarczuk won the International Man Booker Prize in 2018 with her extraordinary novel Flights. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a different book entirely, but no less extraordinary. While Flights flitted across many different characters’ lives, and across times and landscapes, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is firmly located in a tiny Polish village in midwinter, where the snow, the weather and the seasons anchor us to the fairytale landscape. The themes in this book are a triumph of dissimilitude: murder, astrology, vegetarianism, William Blake, free will and determinism – all are wrapped up into a bizarre detective mystery.
Protagonist Janina Duszejko tries to figure out who is behind a series of murders in the village. Her narrative voice is immediately arresting. A former bridge engineer and schoolteacher, she is now retired and addresses her neighbours by names she deems more appropriate, such as ‘Oddball’ or ‘Bigfoot’. She frequently aggrandises events, is given to capitalising nouns that need no capitalisation and has a chronic set of physical symptoms which she refers to as ‘My Ailments’. A strident defender of animals, she is at odds with the hunters who come each year to shoot her ‘young ladies’.
Duszejko sees no difference between the deaths of the human victims in the village and the deer killed by humans. Blood in the snow is blood in the snow. Though Tokarczuk invites us to laugh at Duszejko, she also invites us to sympathise with her, raising questions about what murder is, and why it is a term that might be applied to humans but not animals. Ridiculous and existentially challenging by turns, this is a wildly inventive book.
Set near Melbourne’s Merri Creek in a pre-gentrified 1980s, The Children’s Bach is a re-released novel by Helen Garner. Unlike her classic novel Monkey Grip from 1977 (also recently republished by Text), The Children’s Bach is a circumlocutory tale that nonetheless delivers on the tension. Garner, one of Australia’s leading writers, needs little introduction, but in the preface Ben Lerner describes the book as a ‘jewel’, ‘beautiful, lapidary, rare’. What makes it rare in in the context of Garner’s other, shoutier books, is that this novel is a quiet one, like the pause between musical notes in a composition known as a ‘rest’. Somehow this book feels restorative, filled with carefully observed moments.
Athena and Dexter live with their sons, one of whom has disabilities. Into their world come Elizabeth, her partner Phillip and her sister Vicki, who have the potential to dislodge the fragile equilibrium of the couple’s domestic life. The Children’s Bach is not immediately compelling, nor (unlike Monkey Grip) does it transcend the era in which it was written. The child with disabilities is spoken of with brazen repugnance:
‘Why won’t he ever look at me?’
‘Don’t bother to get romantic,’ said Athena. ‘There’s nobody in there.’
Although we are meant to understand this this a family in pain, over-taxed, perhaps under-supported, we never quite ‘get’ these characters; their flippancy seems overdone. Some of their actions appear at odds what we know of them, and their emotional motivations remain obscure, which is alienating.
One of the most striking aspects of this novel is the characters’ experience of time. Smartphone-less, computer-less, they spend their time singing, drinking and talking. When they are bored they might potter on the piano for hours. Visitors turn up unannounced and Vicki, who is new in town, suffers a palpable isolation. The Children’s Bach is fascinating as a period piece, a story set in a recognisable Melbourne but in a time that seems more distant than it perhaps should.
For its seventieth birthday anniversary, the University of Queensland Press commissioned new work from twenty-five writers whom it has published before. Reading the Landscape: A Celebration of Australian Writing is the result, and it’s a fascinating tapestry. Bernadette Brennan writes in the introduction that, read collectively, these stories ‘bear witness to the strength and importance of Australian writing.’ Whatever ‘Australian writing’ might be, this book holds a diverse and deeply illustrative range of texts, most striking in that each voice is both original and so good.
There are so many writers to highlight here. Mirielle Juchau, who wrote The World Without Us, contributes a story which could easily be part of a larger work. Melissa Lucashenko contributes a poem called ‘Border Protection’ that includes these lines: ‘our spear / kept interrupting me, / telling me, real happy way / that it belonged’.
Julie Koh contributes more of her magical satire. Peter Carey writes directly about Queensland University Press, and David Malouf contributes poetry. The landscape contained here is variegated and unique, and most definitely readable. An excellent collection.
Just Give Me the Pills – Koraly Dimitriadis (Outside the Box Press)
Koraly Dimitriadis’ strengths as a writer are her courageousness, her accessibility, and her role as truth-teller in the face of oppressive societal structures. Dimitriadis hails from a strict Greek Orthodox migrant background and her work is a consistent and vividly burning ‘fuck you’ to tradition, to repression, and to the idea that we must accept the roles allotted us with strangled fortitude. If Dimitriadis’ narrative contains a recommendation it is that we get the hell out of there, wherever the oppressive there might be, and emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes.
In this prose novel, Dimitriadis delves into deeply personal material, covering mental health issues, the fracturing of familial relationships, divorce, and sex. She dishes the dirt, and she’s not afraid of anything. Her writing is coming for you, so you’d better just accept it. Characters include her former husband, her daughter, her sex therapists, and a Yiayia or grandmother figure, who – in a poem set back in the village in Cyprus – pines for her family to return. Dimitriadis appears in the book as a Greek/Australian/Melbournian without the fragmentation and dislocation common to the protagonists of books with similar themes. Instead, there’s a rage-filled declaration of being here. In her rebellion she claims a new space and, along with it new rights authenticity.
The sex therapist said that it’s okay
I can just think of whatever I like when we fuck
and then I can come all over you with my imagination
Her Yiayia, the Greek Orthodox Church and frankly, I myself am shocked by Dimitriadis’ willingness to bare herself in the service of her work. Energetic and irreverent, a must read.
Described by Michael Heyward of Text Publishing as ‘luminously written’, the prose in Exploded View by critically noted writer Carrie Tiffany rises off the page. This is not a tale for the delicate-hearted, but rather one that leaps up, threatening to punch the reader in the face. Present on every page is a sense of barely restrained force, as if the narrative were wilfully holding itself back from some kind of spontaneous combustion. This book is finely wrought and a little twisted all at the same time.
Tiffany has won various prizes for her earlier novels. Exploded View is a triumph of craft published at an exciting point in her career – a honed, deftly managed glass-like thing of a novel. Our young protagonist, a nameless girl, survives in a family where existence is difficult by using her silence as a weapon, along with her detailed knowledge of the car engines her stepfather loves. The story is broken into short, blunt chunks, their brevity effectively jarring. Safety as a concept is dangled and withdrawn, both as a theme and through the storytelling. ‘I like to keep her safe,’ the girl says of her mother. And a few pages later: ‘It’s safe to start the motor on the road after the bus stop,’ while she is ‘borrowing’ her stepfather’s car.
The first few pages of this book risk alienating us entirely. We are introduced to the girl’s ideas about gender, power, and the survival of the female body. (Trigger warning for body issues.) We read about ‘the fat lady’ who has ‘put so much meat around herself it has gone hard’. The girl’s universe is a place in which femininity equals vulnerability. But reading about ‘the fat lady’ – although we understand the girl envies her safety and autonomy – is almost too abrasive. If anything else is amiss in this work it is a tendency towards solemnity. However, Tiffany pulls off something remarkable here: erecting a narrative structure almost buckling under its own weight, but that ultimately holds up. Challenging and devastating, this is an important read.