Strangely Lewis and Rachel invited a crazy bus lady to lunch and let her cuddle their baby ... and then posted the most unflattering photo on the family photo album so all the other grannies can feel normal. I had a lovely afternoon with Jacob and Aisla; it was like a blast from the past, first wandering round the toy shop (where to be honest she picked something really fast compared to my lot) then getting to know Aisla while Jake chatted for ages to the guys in Games Workshop. Then I spent a lovely 24 hours cuddling the babe. I was worried that she would not like strange new people but she smiled up at me and we got along like a house on fire.
I had a very long trek home, but not because of the weather. The snow cancelled the trains going on to Edinburgh but ours going south was stymied by a broken down train between Northallerton and York. So I read my book in a cold waiting room for an hour and a half, then on a very slow train to York that missed the connection for Manchester. About a dozen of us were ferried by taxi and I finally got home about 1am. I was so buzzed I just sat up and finished it.
'Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead' by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk (linking to wiki as her website is in Polish) is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I knew I was going to love it straight away. It tells the story of Janina Duszejko (who hates the name Janina) and her grumpy neighbour Oddball, Good News who runs the local second hand shop, a former student Dizzy and wandering entomologist Boros. (People's names in the story are mostly invented by Janina, allocated according to her impression of them). It begins with the death of Big Foot (their only other near neighbour), and progresses though the deaths of several other local men, which Janina is convinced are being masterminded as revenge by the local wildlife. She and Oddball don't actually have much to do with each other prior to the murders but circumstances conspire to force them to get to know each other better.
I liked her here, because although she is a crotchety old woman and avoids her two neighbours as much as possible, she has moments of just ordinary humanity and being a decent human being:
"As I looked at Big Foot's poor, twisted body I found it hard to believe that only yesterday I'd been afraid of this Person. I disliked him. To say I disliked him might be putting it too mildly. Instead I should say that I found him repulsive, horrible. In fact I didn't even regard him as a human Being. Now he was lying on the stained floor in his dirty underwear, small and skinny, limp and harmless. Just a piece of matter, which some unimaginable process had reduced to a fragile object, separated from everything else. It made me feel sad, horrified, for even someone as foul as he did not deserve death. Who on earth does? The same fact awaits me too, and Oddball, and the Deer outside; one day we shall all be nothing more than corpses." (p.18)
Liked this description of his house, and how much Janina admires it:
"Oddball's fondness for order is plain to see in his small front yard: the firewood for the winter lies piled in ingenious cords arranged in a spiral. The result is a neat stack of golden proportions. These cords of his could be regarded as a local work of art. I find it hard to resist their beautiful spiral order. whenever I pass that way, I always stop and admire the constructive cooperation of hands and mind, which in such a trivial thing as firewood expresses the most perfect motion of the universe.
The path in front of Oddball's house is so very neatly gravelled that it looks like a special kind of gravel, a collection of identical pebbles, hand-picked in a rocky underground factory run by hobgoblins. Every fold of the clean curtains hanging in the windows is exactly the same width; he must use a special device for that. And the flowers in his garden are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they'd been to the gym." (p.34)
As the story progresses you get a glimpse of her feelings about the natural world, and her growing anger at people who defile it:
"Then, if I went beyond our bounds, the landscape changed. Here and there exclamation marks stuck out of the ground, sharp needles piercing the scenery. Whenever my gaze caught them, my eyelids began to quiver; the eye cut itself on those wooden structures erected in the fields, on their boundaries, or at the edge of the forest. In total there were eight of them in the Plateau, I knew the exact figure, for I'd had dealings with them in the past, like Don Quixote with the windmills. They were knocked together out of wooden beams, set crosswise; they consisted entirely of crosses. These grotesque figures had four legs and a cabin with embrasures on top. Pulpits for hunting. This name has always amazed and angered me. For what on earth was taught from that sort of pulpit? What sort of gospel was preached? Isn't it the height of arrogance, isn't it a diabolical idea to call a place from which one kills a pulpit?" (p.64)
She is a weird mixture of ideas. She is obsessed with astrology, and has a theory about astrological charts predicting the death of the individual, and also the means of death, and she regularly writes to the police with this theory as the murders multiply. She is an engineer by trade, but her 'Ailments' (random capital letters are applied to important words) caused her retirement and she now teaches English in the local school and cares for several holiday homes during the off-season. But she is curious and scientific too. Here she is conducting a experiment:
"I was working in my garden patch, testing one of my Theories. I think I can find proof for the fact that we inherit phenotypes, which flies in the face of modern genetics. I had noticed that certain acquired features make irregular appearances in subsequent generations. So three years ago I set about repeating Mendel's experiment with sweet peas. I am now in the middle of it. I notched the petals of the flowers, through five generations in a row (two a year), and then checked to see if the seeds would produce flowers with damaged petals. I must say that the results of this experiment were looking very encouraging." (p.171-2)
So the story was excellent, the characters were excellent and the atmosphere of the place. I was going to give you a long quote with another astrological theory but I need to just give you a little touch of her writing that had moments like this (and all credit to the translator who captured the writing so well):
"The Samurai's windows were coated with hoar frost, still young, very fine and delicate, like a cosmic mycelium." (p.229)
It is a spoiler to say she did it. I am not sure how much I suspected her, but it was not a surprise. The back story emerges gradually, explaining all. And with the help of her trusty band of friends she escapes across the border to the sunny Czech Republic. And I cheered.
Stay safe. Be kind. Ponder some morally ambiguous summary justice.