Are you looking for a crime novel packed with action and suspense this weekend? Gu Byeong-Mo’s “The Old Woman with the Knife,” translated by Chi-Young Kim, is out. It’s a fast-paced thriller, but unlike other crime fiction, at its center, we have a 65-year-old woman assassin. Kickass, isn’t it? For a while now, Koreans have been dominating the crime fiction genre, with their translated novels becoming international bestsellers. Last year, Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist even bagged the prestigious CWA International Dagger Award.
The writer’s Spanish translation of her debut novel, Wijeodeu Beikeori, won her the Daesan Literary Award in 2016, and The Old Woman with the Knife is her first book available to English readers. The book begins with a subway scene where we meet the central character, who appears to be like any other ordinary 65-year-old woman dressed in “clothing appropriate for middle-class senior citizens” and reading a pocket-sized Bible. Her name isn’t revealed, but what is described in detail is the way she blends in with the crowd. She never says, does, or has anything about her that would make others remember her. “They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant and recyclable,” just like any other senior citizen in any part of the world. But then comes the twist. The old, indistinguishable woman finishes off a man in a manner so remarkably unnoticeable that no one, not even the victim, realized that he had been slashed, and when they did, she was already gone. That’s Hornclaw, our protagonist/antagonist, who lives a single life in an apartment with her old dog, Deadweight, and often ponders over her retirement plan. She is a disease control specialist and has the job of disposing of pests and vermin in society.
Hornclaw is her alias, given to her by the man who first recruited her. Just like Hitman’s is Agent 47, right? She also has a nickname, “Nails,” because she happens to finish off her victims very neatly with her Knife. “She had sharp, exacting skills,” which impressed her boss and clients alike. And just like you make enemies in your place of work, Hornclaw had enemies too, or rather, an enemy, a person called Bullfight. He is young, at the prime of his life, in demand amongst the clients, and even has direct conversations with them when taking up the contract, something with which Hornclaw was never comfortable. The reason for his resentment towards Hornclaw is not revealed at first, and as readers, we are left to guess the obvious ones: her age, her gender, or both, and the fact that she is good at her job. However, it turns out that the history between Bullfight and Hornclaw goes back to a time when Bullfight was a kid and Hornclaw was assigned the task of killing his father. The kid, having just returned from school, found his father in a pool of blood and their temporary housekeeper on the verge of jumping out of the window after finishing the act. The housekeeper was Hornclaw, and before leaving, she told Bullfight to “forget this.” How can a child possibly forget the murder of his father? But Hornclaw had grown too used to killing people. She is a hitwoman, and her task is to exterminate people. She doesn’t ask questions; she just kills with no guilt, regret, or thoughts. It’s like she doesn’t have any conscience, or maybe whatever she had in the name of it has gone astray.
Bullfight, however, harbored no intention of vengeance in his mind. In fact, even after finishing the book, it’s not clear why he wanted to kill Hornclaw. If he didn’t want revenge, then what did he want? He describes the soft, straight hair that fell on her shoulder, making him want to touch her. Her love and affection, then? If so, why would he then interfere with Hornclaw’s tasks and mess with the targets? Hornclaw, after being injured one night by one of her targets, makes her way to her usual clinic, where instead of Dr. Chang, she is treated by Dr. Kang, an intern with a six-year-old daughter and a dead wife. Hornclaw’s attraction towards the young doctor and her need to keep him and his family safe are what have earned her more of Bullfight’s contempt.
Events are narrated not in a linear fashion but somewhat haphazardly, with Hornclaw retreating to her past often, sharing bits and pieces about herself, her work, and the people that she had been involved with to again come back to the present and keep her readers at pace with her current state or plan of activity. Ryu’s instructions (the one who taught her and once worked with her) are reiterated by the antagonist often, and they seem like the only things that her failing memory would never fail to recollect. They seem to have the same importance for her as a preacher’s word does for a religious zealot. Hornclaw’s upbringing, the situations that she had faced, and the reason for her first kill all point towards our failing government, which causes people to struggle for basic survival needs. At that point, you do not have the luxury of thinking about what’s morally correct and what’s not. Hornclaw’s first kill was an act of self-defense, a situation to kill or get killed, but after that, there was no turning back (not that she wanted to). Perhaps the murder of Ryu’s wife, Cho, and their baby was the final nail in the coffin, which hardened her enough to never want or look for any relationship. She knew well that whoever she loved wouldn’t be spared, which made her put her own baby up for adoption, thereby rejecting motherhood altogether.
Apart from the plot, what stood out for me was how the author focused on diverse themes starting from aging to the economic crisis and recession post-Korean war, along with the status of women, especially the aged in the ‘prosperous’ and democratic South Korea. There have been quite a few writers like Han Kang and Kyung-sook Shin who have shed light on the plight of Korean women, but Gu Byeong explores it from a completely different point of view. The fact that even a cold-blooded assassin has to face the same level of harassment in her workplace as any other woman is unimaginable. But her willpower to take no nonsense and to brush off all the sexism and misogyny is what makes us root for her, apart from her temperament or nature, which slowly turns warm, making us realize that she was a victim of the massive power structure that controls our lives and choices.
The novel ends on a completely different note, and several issues in the plot remain unresolved. Personally, I would have preferred some more pages to get to know a bit more about the lives of all the complex characters, be it Ryu or Bullfight. Also, the readers are left to figure out how the blossoming romance between Hornclaw and Dr. Kang continues or ends. The action sequences were well described, and the language was witty and plain. Overall, it’s a fantastic introduction by a promising writer whose first thriller is bound to get the readers engrossed.