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by Gu Byeong-Mo and Chi-Young Kim, trans.
HarperCollins, March 2022
288 pages
ISBN: 1335425764

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE OLD WOMAN WITH THE KNIFE reads at the beginning almost like a dystopian novel: "disease control specialists" are clearing society of bad people; the location isn't specifically named though the novelist is Korean; characters are known by aliases; the time could be the present or the near future; and there's an overall sense of unease and disorientation. What's sharply in focus, though, is that Hornclaw, the main character, is a skilled assassin. Because of that, this novel could be classified as a thriller, but it's hard to pigeonhole it.

Hornclaw is the old woman of the title. She's 65, and she does, indeed, have a knife. Several, in fact. And it is not a dystopian novel (although some elements of the "real life" it portrays are unsettlingly dystopian-esque). This is the here and now, and Hornclaw is a hired assassin who works for a company of assassins. In fact, she helped found the company. As she has aged, her reflexes have slowed a bit and she finds her physical strength is waning, particularly as she recovers from a bad injury. It's harder to do her job, and she finds herself making mistakes she wouldn't have made as a younger woman. But most people in her business don't live as long as she has, and her age, combined with the fact that she's a woman, helps her in her work since both factors make her invisible to the world at large. However, one of her coworkers is determined that Hornclaw won't retire comfortably, so Hornclaw's last job becomes one that requires all her cunning and skills since she herself is the target.

Moving back and forth in time and among characters, Gu Byeong-Mo tells an engrossing, thrill-filled tale that also explores the effects of aging, of society's views of older women, of heartbreak and survival and, ultimately, unexpected triumph, and she tells the tale in such a gentle, meditative manner that it's easy to be lulled by the unwinding events so that the confrontations are unsettlingly matter-of-fact but also terrifically shocking. The setting and characters are also so expertly drawn that they're clearly seen, felt, and known: we smell the crowd on the subway; feel Hornclaw's angst, pain, and struggles; care about her dog Deadweight—and about Hornclaw herself, even though she approaches life pragmatically rather than emotionally, keeping most things neatly compartmentalized in order to survive and do the jobs she's hired to do. Overall, in spite of the distancing she tries to maintain, Hornclaw is a richly nuanced character we care deeply about, the plot, twisting and turning through time, characters, and events, is intriguing, and the novel itself is both captivating and thought provoking.

This is Gu Byeong-Mo's third published novel but just the first of hers to be published in English. It is to be hoped that it will not be her last.

§ Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, December 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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