What with my month of Japanese reading and the various review copies I’ve received recently, it’s been a good while since I’ve been able to get to a Korean book, but today’s choice breaks that drought with a fun novel that takes a look at Korean society through a very different pair of eyes. Whether she’s on the underground, or just casually browsing at the local market, the main character is definitely not a woman you should take your eyes off – as the blurb proclaims, the female of the species is always more deadly than the male…
Gu Byeong-mo’s The Old Woman with the Knife (Translated by Chi-Young Kim, review copy courtesy of Canongate Books) is the story of Hornclaw, a sixty-five-year-old woman who has a rather unusual profession. While she refers to herself as a “disease control specialist”, that’s a rather interesting euphemism, and the vermin she spends her time cleaning up, for a lucrative fee, tend to be rats of a rather human nature. Despite her age, she’s still fit, healthy and dangerous, and she’s happy to spend time at home between jobs with her dog, Deadweight, or collecting information for her next task.
And yet, it seems she’s come to a bit of a turning point in her life. A rookie mistake in her last job is causing her more thana little physical pain, and she’s recently found herself becoming sentimental, stopping to chat and help people in a manner ill-suited to an assassin. What’s even more troubling, though, is a suspicion that someone is watching her, a suspicion that becomes ever harder to shake off. Gradually, she realises that the decision of a quiet retirement might not be hers to make after all…
Gu Byeong-mo is a popular writer whose work probably could have been brought into English earlier (her novel The Wizard Bakery seems to have been translated into most other big languages), with only the short story ‘The Story of P.C.’ out there in English as far as I know. However, The Old Woman with the Knife is certainly a good choice for a mainstream debut, and I’m sure most readers will love the idea of the elderly assassin looking to end her career without ending up six-feet under.
The story develops around two intersecting events. We meet Hornclaw just as she’s starting to doubt herself, physically and mentally, unable to just shrug off the usual twinges. Yet it’s the way she has come to connect with people, including a chance meeting with a young man, that is truly disturbing her:
But now she is noticing the emptiness in a stranger’s eyes and feeling sympathy, an unexpected comprehension of what it’s like to feel the tug of flesh and bone. What could this be if it isn’t evidence of aging and decline?
p.151 (Canongate Books, 2022)
If she was already starting to think about life after disease control, now the thought of retiring gracefully is even more appealing.
However, this is the worst of times for the old woman to go soft. Over a long career, it’s inevitable that enemies will be made, and as it turns out, there’s someone out there gunning for her, finally ready to take revenge for a deed Hornclaw has long forgotten. The new friendships she’s making, and the new softness she’s showing, prove to be liabilities, ripe to be exploited by her shadow.
A major theme of Gu’s novel is old age and how it usually sees us thrust aside. Given Hornclaw’s unique skillset, her employers are unlikely to approach the topic too hastily, but there are many hints that it might be time to hang up the knife:
Her body may not do what she wants it to. Everything eventually succumbs to erosion, including the soul. Everything ruptures; possibilities, like aging bodies, wither. (p.235)
However, she’s far from the only one in this situation. There are several other older people featured in the book, including a homeless man, a cardboard collector and a couple of elderly fruit sellers, all of whom are struggling in a world that’s passed them by.
There’s also some more general criticism of Korean society. From the opening scene of the tired drones on the underground to the overcrowded clinic with the low-status doctors, there are several tropes familiar to any K-Drama fans out there. Even Hornclaw’s own story of a deprived childhood and her ‘adoption’ out will resonate with many older readers in Korea, making her even more of a lovable figure.
While Gu’s story works well for the most part, it’s fairly clear where we’re going from very early on, probably a little too early for me. The story can stall a little, especially with the many flashbacks where Hornclaw remembers her mentor, and it does plod along a little in some places. However, the tension at the heart of the story is nicely done, and it all builds to the violent showdown we know is coming – and which would be perfect for a small-screen adaptation 🙂
The Woman with the Old Knife is probably a little less literary than my usual fare, but I suspect it’s a book that’ll hit the spot for many readers, whether they come for the Korean connection or the idea of the deadly senior citizen. I certainly enjoyed my few hours in Hornclaw’s company, but reading the book does have its drawbacks. Now, every time I get on the train to work, I’ll be keeping well clear of any little old ladies, and I certainly won’t be harassing anyone, let alone pregnant women, for a seat. Confused? Well, just read the book to find out what I mean…