20 Books of Summer, #19 and #20: Home Remedies and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection of short stories, Home Remedies, was on my list of books to read in 2020. The collection is split into three sections, ‘Family’, ‘Love’ and ‘Time’, though I wasn’t sure this division was necessary, as while the stories do fall into certain groups, they don’t mirror these themes. Wang showcases her versatility by writing in a number of different registers. One lot of stories – ‘Days of Being Mild’ – ‘Fuerdai to the Max’ – are told in first-person and focus on young Chinese people living either in China or in the US who are pursuing the kind of unfocused millennial existence that has been explored in a fair amount of fiction, living in large houseshares, making art and having messy relationships. Another lot – ‘Mott Street in July’ – ‘White Tiger of the West’ – adopt a more distant third-person register and explore generational dynamics with reference to more traditional Chinese ways of life. We also have a couple with the kind of cutesy, clever titles that I can’t deal with at all – ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening-Ailments’ – ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ – that impose certain structures, such as a list of remedies or algorithms, on their narratives in a way that looks clever but always ends up being so reductive. It’s not surprising that the best story in the collection, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, which considers the relationship between two young male synchronised divers who represent China in international competitions, doesn’t fit into any of these slots. However, although I appreciated its sympathetic development of one young man’s feelings for the other, it concludes with an image that underlines the symbolism of the story far too obviously. This sits in contrast to the majority of the stories in this collection, which go too far the other way and simply trail off with no sense of resolution. I really wanted to like this more, and I know several bloggers whose opinions I trust are big fans, but I found it bland and disappointing.

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Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, attracted a shed-load of positive critical attention from English-speaking reviewers and bloggers after its translation into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2019 (it was originally published in Polish in 2009). Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2018 meant her literary stardom was assured. Drive Your Plow… is an undoubtedly bizarre novel held together by an incredible narrative voice. Our narrator is Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living in an isolated Polish village; when her neighbour is murdered in the middle of winter, she sets out to discover the reasons behind his death. However, this is no murder mystery but a much more metaphysical exploration of questions about what makes us human. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of novel that I will just never get on with personally, even though I was tempted into trying it by the glowing reviews. I loved how vividly Janina was drawn but found the whole enterprise too surreal and disparate to really commit to this fictional world. The folk-tale feel of the first chapter was also more evocative for me, and I felt further distanced when Janina comes into crunching contact with modernity a bit later on. Drive Your Plow… is a divisive read, but it’s an impressive novel that must also have been horribly difficult to translate. And at least I’ve read something that counts towards #WomenInTranslation month!

20 Books of Summer is almost over! How are you getting on with the challenge, if you decided to do it?

I’ll post my usual 20 Books of Summer retrospective on Tuesday 1st of September.

18 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #19 and #20: Home Remedies and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

      • I aspire to read more lit in translation, but the kinds of things that get nominated for e.g. the International Booker often don’t attract me, or don’t work for me if I do try them. (Sorry if ‘class’ seemed weird in my previous comment — a poor word choice on my part.)

        It’s too bad your final two weren’t more to your taste; I hope some of your summer picks will stand out as favourites for the year.

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  1. Ah, I’m sorry to see these weren’t better fits for you. I really enjoyed Janina in Drive Your Plow, though I can understand your criticisms. And I’ve been so curious about Home Remedies, but I think I won’t hurry to get to it now that I’ve seen your more balanced review as a counterpoint to the hype for it. But congrats on finishing the 20 Books of Summer challenge!

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  2. Well done for achieving your 20 although sorry these two weren’t quite up to scratch – still, you got them read! I’ve finished as of last night – final review and round-up coming tomorrow morning as the review was quite short (although I’ve realised I need to go back and add some stats to the round-up!).

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  3. i tried to read Home Remedies earlier this month and struggled with it too – i thought the writing was beautiful, but something about the stories themselves just werent clicking with me for some reason…it felt like maybe they were trying to be complex but ended up being convoluted instead

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  4. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer 2020: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

  5. I loved “Drive Your Plow”, but I see your point of view too. I recall I said in my review that “as a detective story, Drive Your Plow is rather disappointing”. I guess I was taken in by Janina’s personality and the bold way to present the narrative, and didn’t mind too much that everything else was either unbelievable and unconvincing.

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    • I thought Janina’s narrative voice was fantastic! I didn’t mind that the detective element wasn’t strong as I’m not a fan of detective stories, but I’m always uneasy with fiction where I feel like everything is shifting around me.

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  6. Pingback: #SciFiMonth Reading, 2020 | Laura Tisdall

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