BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Hornclaw is a sixty-five-year-old woman who refers to herself as a “disease control specialist.” The so-called ‘vermin’ she spends her time exterminating for a high price are humans with a certain rodent-like disposition. Never mind her age and perceived frailty –that is how she evades suspicion. Hornclaw is both fit and dangerous with absolutely no empathy for outsiders. None except for Deadweight, her equally aged dog. Hornclaw teeters on a fine line of calculated ruthlessness and tenderness for those she cares for. The vulnerability of emotional uncertainty spirals her down a path of reckoning, where she must make a choice to either give into love, her greatest weakness, or shun it entirely.
After making an amateur mistake on her last job, which causes her a considerable amount of physical pain, Hornclaw finds herself lying unconscious in the office of Dr. Kang. A kind doctor who decides to not judge her, despite the copious knives hidden within the lining of her coat. Dr. Kang only treats her wounds and chooses not to call the police. Shocked by his understanding nature, Hornclaw slowly but surely succumbs to sentimentality. Her hard-shell exterior cracks to reveal the tiny, fragile human inside. She leaves abruptly, only to realize that a pair of eyes are watching her. Perhaps her decision for a peaceful, easy retirement cushioned by her abundant savings is no longer possible.
The Old Woman with the Knife (2022) is a fantastic introduction to Korean author Gu Byeong-Mo, who has released other well-received stories such as The Wizard Bakery (2009) and “The Story of P.C.” (2017). Talented translator Chi-Young Kim expertly conveys the philosophical dilemma faced by the story’s anti-hero. Hornclaw, who begins to doubt herself and her abilities, cannot shake off the usual everyday problems. Before, ignoring human feelings was simple – just pull the trigger before any emotions have the time to settle.
It is the way Hornclaw starts to connect with people, not just Dr. Kang but even the local garbage collector, that truly unnerves her. “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.” Is this evidence of a mental downward spiral or that her body and soul finally want to feel something other than careless apathy? Similarly to how an elderly person finds hope in God on their death bed, Hornclaw begins to find solace in commiserating with other human beings.
However, now’s not the time for going ‘soft.’ In Hornclaw’s line of work, one is bound to make enemies. As expected, someone has been waiting years for the perfect moment to strike – someone whose life was upended by a deed that Hornclaw has since completely forgotten about. Just as she makes new friends, grows closer to the people around her, and adequately nurtures her faithful dog, she unintentionally puts everyone she cares for at risk. What better way to destroy someone than by taking revenge on their loved ones first?
Mo’s novel questions the conventional conceptions of both motherhood and old age. Entrenched in Korean society, which places heavy restrictions on women and the elderly, many signs point to why Hornclaw should quit ‘disease extermination.’ “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.” She is underestimated by everyone around her, who expect her to fulfill the societal positions of other aged neighborhood figures such as the trash collector, fruit seller, or local panhandler.
Not only does Hornclaw reject the conventional role of the local elderly woman, but she also rejects motherhood altogether. After giving away the only child she had with a lover from her youth, she experiences no regret following her decision. “She’s never shared her life with anyone… [When] it grew weathered with time, she burned the newborn’s picture in the stove; watching the image singe and crumple, not only did she not feel any regret, she felt a release.” Despite what more traditional societies, like Korea, have codified into their cultural standard, not every woman is cut out to be a mom, and not every elderly person merits underestimation.
It is not common that the heroine of a story is both a murderer and over the age of forty. Gu Byeong-Mo’s thrilling psychological tale challenges both literary conventions and our own preconceived judgments about certain overlooked types in society. Stylistically witty, smooth, and highly gripping – Mo’s novel will slice into your heart with an assassin’s unerring sense of direction.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.