Without intending it, I have been reading a lot of macabre things recently. This includes the more usual crime stories with violent ends and psychiatrically-challenged characters, but has also tended towards discussions of death, accounts of real or fictional crimes, and a lot about anatomy and dissection. I wonder if it stems from my recent project at work, where I was researching crime across the UK and barristers that specialise in prosecuting international crime, such as genocide and torture in developing countries. That my morbid interest leaked into my personal reading shouldn’t have surprised me but it has helped me form a more complete picture of things – see previous entries about the domestic criminal justice system in England, both fictional accounts exploring war crimes and biographical accounts of suffering in war, and medical and anatomical writings. It swirls together into some really interesting but depressing themes. The last couple of books that I have been reading elevated some of these themes for me into something more comprehensive that demonstrates two different answers to the question, Why are we alive and what is the point of it all?
Sue Black, All That Remains: A Life in Death (2018)
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009)
Both Sue Black’s All That Remains: A Life in Death and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead bring you into the very forefront of a world-wise, brave, and morally-sure older woman. I was thrilled to be led by these women through two extremely different books – one a fictional crime jaunt through a Polish village, another a series of stories illustrating the varied career of one of the world’s top forensic pathologists. One of the glaring differences is something I want to get out of the way quickly: Tokarczuk is a fantastic, sensitive writer that is a master of her craft; Black is a brilliant, intelligent scientist trying to share some of the incredible things she has seen and done, and who occasionally stumbles into some less-skilled narration and storytelling. The difference is being led through the woods by a mystically-gifted poet that knows all the tappings of William Blake against sitting in a warm pub with a wickedly sharp and witty Scottish madam who has many a yarn to tell. You cannot compare their skills fairly on this front.
On the other hand, both writers have a frank attitude to death, both natural and violent, and a kinship with the natural order that stemmed from extremely different places. Black is an experienced forensic anthropologist that specialises in teaching anatomical dissection, assisting police investigations (domestic and international), as well as publishing medical textbooks. Similarly, Tokarczuk demonstrates a deep interest in the human body – both in this book but especially in some of the stories in her other book, Flights. Their books share a fascinating blended attitude of a no-nonsense acceptance of death as a natural end to life, while demonstrating revulsion of cruelty and unnatural deaths caused by other people. Tokarczuk’s protagonist in Drive Your Plow is an animal lover that protests the hunting community around her while demonstrating a lack of fear surrounding human endings, while Black deals daily with death and helps to punish those who torture others. The result is a combination of wry black humour and some gruesome paragraphs and tales, with a generous dollop of the charming moments that remind you why life is so attractive. For example, Black describes her reaction to examining a donation of “human remains”:
Before opening the beg, I made notes, took photos of the bag and donned mask and gloves to ensure that, if these were human remains, there would be no DNA cross-contamination. I admit to being a little nervous as I unwrapped them. But within seconds I was exclaiming under my breath, ‘Oh, for the love of the wee man!’ as I found myself looking at the butchered rib and shoulder bone of a large cow. 
Elsewhere, she details vulgar nicknames the team gave each other and some of the pranks they enjoyed playing during police training sessions. Tokarczuk’s lightness is more subtly imbued in her novel, as she brings poetry to the story in lines such as:
Here the winter does a wonderful job of wrapping everything in white cotton wool, and shortens the day to the utmost, so that if you make the mistake of staying up too late at night, you might awake in the Gloom of the following afternoon, which – I frankly admit – has been happening to me more and more often since last year. Here the sky hangs over us dark and low, like a dirty screen, on which clouds are fighting fierce battles. 
Blake suited the mood that evening: we felt as if the sky had sunk very low over the Earth, and hadn’t left much space or much air for living Creatures to survive. Low, dark clouds had been scudding across the sky all day, and now, late in the evening, they were rubbing their wet bellies against the hills. 
I had often wondered if the people who did the television programming were trying to display their extensive astrological knowledge. 
I truly admire the translator’s efforts in this book – Antonia Lloyd-Jones – bringing the poetry of the Polish to bear in English as well. Another wonderful moment was a Mushroom Pickers’ Ball where she and her friend dress as Red Riding Hood and her Wolf:
I drove the Samurai up to Oddball’s house and admired his peonies while I waited for him. He soon appeared in the doorway. I was speechless with wonder. He was wearing black lace-up boots, white stockings and a sweet flowery dress with a little apron. On his head, tied under his chin with a bow, was a little red hood.
He was in a bad mood. He settled in the passenger seat and didn’t say a single wold the whole way to the firehouse. He held his red headgear on his knees and only put it back on once we had stopped outside the firehouse.
‘As you can see, I have absolutely no sense of humour,’ he said. [196-7]
The mystery of the novel is not the strongest, but the thing I loved most about this book was her interweaving of poetic concepts and moods into an extended story. Each new character, every new place revealed to us, each surprising twist and turn in the narrator’s personality felt like a new stanza in an anthology. Tokarczuk’s love and admiration for Blake was palpable and he was understood in a way I rarely see – innocence, terror, love, death, hell, and the bliss of heaven all woven together in a complex, straightforward image for all to admire. It was a real joy to experience Blake in a new way like this. His respect and love for living things, especially those most innocent creatures – animals and children – is evident in all his writing. Likewise, Drive Your Plough exemplifies a philosophy of “Love” that is beautifully mad in the selfish man-made context of the modern world. Black’s vision of a world where people are able to acknowledge death as a natural end to their lives provided one rational approach to human life – where bodies are treated with respect as they are used for organ donation or to teach the next generations of medical students and scientists. Those that disrespect either the living or the dead before they reach their natural end are found out with the aid of scientific investigation, informed by anatomical methodology. Tokarczuk’s (and Blake’s) world is a spritually-touched realm where no creature harms another and divine punishment is meted out to those that disobey by God or His operators on Earth. These differing orders of justice were presented through narrative examples of previous suffering and what had been done to correct it – often with grisly details. I was particularly tickled by Tokarczuk’s inclusion of references to the old medieval and early modern animal trials, where animals were put on trial in human courts for committing crimes. Likewise, people committing horrific crimes (to the point they start to resemble mindless animals) are put on trial in Black’s book, to answer for the cruelties inflicted on others.
Each books came with moments too physically revolting to read comfortably and you cannot get away from either without feelings deeply moved by the cruelty within their pages. The comfort provided lies in the efforts by those people willing to band together and demonstrate greater courage, kindness and love in the face of horrific crimes. One heroine relies on scientific rationality, the other protagonist studies astrological charts and signs in nature, but both seek to find order and reason behind the death that surrounds them. I have been given a lot to think about.
I wan to end on some of the more beautiful examples of Tokarczuk’s skill in Drive Your Plow, as I was so moved by the charming, if quirky, depictions of the villagers. I could replicate the whole book in this way but I want to share two particular moments that capture both the unusual humour and creepiness of the book. The first is a description of some neighbours as the protagonist is touring the village on her rounds:
The smallest house, below a damp copse, had recently been bought by a noisy family from Wroclaw. […] The house was going to be rebuilt and transformed into a miniature Polish manor – one day they’d add columns and a porch, and at the back end there’d be a swimming pool. So their father told me. […] Their family name was Weller. I spent a long time wondering if I should give them a name of my own, but then I realised that this was one of the two cases known to me where the official surname fitted the Person. They really were the people from the well – they’d fallen into it long ago and had now arranged their lives at the bottom of it, thinking the well was the entire world. [62-3]
The second is from a scene in the middle of night in her own home:
There stood my Mother, in a flowery summer frock, with a handbag slung over her shoulder. She was anxious and confused.
‘For God’s sake, what are you doing here, Mummy?’ I shouted in surprise.
She opened her mouth as if to answer, and tried moving her lips for a while, but did not produce any sound. Then she gave up. Her eyes roamed fitfully across the walls and ceiling of the boiler room. She didn’t know where she was. Once again she tried to say something, and once again she gave up.
‘Mummy,’ I whispered, trying to catch her fugitive gaze.
I was angry wither, for she had died a long time ago, and that’s not how long-gone mothers should behave. 
If that doesn’t convince you to go pick up a copy, I don’t know what will.
Similar books to Drive Your Plow: Tove Jansson, The Winter Book; Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries; Richard Power, The Overstory; Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe.
Similiar books to All That Remains: Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War; The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken; Olga Tokarczuk, Flights; Tom Reynolds, Blood Sweat and Tea.