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The Old Woman With The Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo — quirky tale from South Korea

Cover of The Old Woman With the Knife, a strange tale of a paid assassin by the South Korea author Gu Geyon-Mo

The Old Woman With the Knife is a strange mixture indeed: a psychological thriller that includes insightful comments about attitudes to ageing in South Korea.

Gu Byeong-Mo’s focus is on Hornclaw, a 65 year old woman working in the field of “disease control”, which it becomes apparent is a euphemism for contract killing. She’s built a long career eliminating individuals considered to be “vermin”. She’s stalked them, chopped off their fingers, broken their bones and invoked fear in them before despatching these people “in the most gruesome way possible.”

In 45 years she’s seldom put a foot wrong, planning her attack with precision and leaving no trace of her existence. On her latest assignment she makes an uncharacteristic error, creating a sequence of events that puts her own life in danger. Hornclaw was already thinking it was time to retire but the antics of an upstart colleague who seems determined to undermine her, make the idea even more appealing.

Byeong-Mo weaves into this narrative some observations about attitudes towards people who are growing older. I did wince at the notion reflected in the novel’s title, that a woman of 65 is “old” . I know the bones are creaking and parts of me no longer work as they used to but I most definitely don’t think of myself as old. Once the eyebrows had resumed their normal position, I remembered how work colleagues in China frequently rejected images proposed for advertising campaigns because the model was “too old” (at 30). So maybe in Asian society, 65 is not the new 50 or whatever slogan we’re supposed to buy into now.

That’s enough digression. Stick to the point Karen!

What Hornclaw experiences is that people’s attitudes towards her have changed as she’s grown older. She’s seen it at the gym where once her bulging biceps regularly drew amazed comments. Now she’s made to feel “this is not a place for someone like you” and directed instead to exercises for “ageing muscles.” It’s noticeable at work too with fewer and less demanding assignments, a development she suspects is meant as a signal she’s a has-been and should retire.

They think that an old person can’t live the rest of her life with her mind intact, that an old person gets sick easily and spreads disease and that nobody will take care of the elderly.

Hornclaw is an interesting character. Outwardly she’s an ordinary woman, the kind you wouldn’t look at twice and certainly never suspect of murderous intent. But beneath her gentle facade lies a fiercely determined woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She lives an almost hermit-like existence with only source of affection; her elderly dog Deadweight, We learn only a fair way into the novel that she was once capable of love and affection but became a killing machine because of an event when she was a young girl.

The thriller elements had little appeal for me. They weren’t gratuitously violent or excessively described (neither of which I would appreciate anyway). I just found them rather lacking dramatic tension and the fight scenes overly long. Though I enjoyed Hornclaw’s character (especially her relationship with her dog), I wasn’t invested enough to be all that bothered about whether she survives her colleague’s machinations.

I can see that this novel might appeal to readers who like quirky novels but personally I’m not clear what the overall point is of this novel. Maybe it’s meant to be a critique of a society whose citizens readily take out assassination contracts to deal with double-crossers, unfaithful partners and corporate enemies. Or maybe it’s a novel about finding once more the capacity for love and compassion? Both could have been interesting avenues but they were never fully exploited. It’s a novel that ended up, for me, as a narrative that had potential but needed more investment in character and motivation..

The Old Woman With The Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo: Footnotes

IGu Byeong-Mo is apparently an award-winning author in her native South Korea. Wizard Bakery, her first novel, won an award for young adult fiction when it was published in 2009. A 2015 short story collection I Hope It’s Not Just Me picked up two awards. The Old Woman With The Knife is her first novel to be translated into English. It is due for publication in the UK by Canongate on 3 March 2022. Translation is by Chi-Young Kim.

My thanks to Canongate for providing me with a a review copy via NetGalley.

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