the-old-woman-with-the-knife cover

The Old Woman with the Knife

Gu Byeong-Mo
Canongate, Paperback

Who can resist a book with this alarmingly motivational title and a praise quote from the author of Killing Eve?  The Old Woman with the Knife is a pacy assassin story from a prize-winning Korean novelist, and is built around a good mystery.

But it’s also more than that.  The Old Woman with the Knife offers reflections on how older women can become invisible in society, being written off as obsolete and dull. While this can help if you’re trying to murder people for work and get away with it, there is a price to be paid, as our 65-year-old killer Hornclaw finds out.

I had never thought about the difficulty of remaining inconspicuous in a gym as an older female contract killer: “Once, a young woman on the treadmill next to hers held out her business card and said she was a producer for a program that aired at six in the evening and that featured unusual people, and she asked her to come on the show to talk about being an older woman with a killer body”.  

Easy to read, the book works on many levels. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about ageing and exclusion, while retaining snappy lines and a vivid sense of place.  What has Hornclaw given up or gone without to get this life? Is it what she wanted? Can she become part of the things she finds herself outside, including perhaps family life?  Nothing feels laboured or heavily burdened with message or meaning, it just feels very human.

There is a great and memorable dog in this book, Hornclaw’s companion Deadweight.  Hornclaw explains to Deadweight that it will be hard for the dog to be rehomed, if it comes to that: “Not just because you’re a dog.  It’s the same with people.  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.  That’s what they think about all living things”.

For anyone who loved the films Salt or Haywire this is a must read… but also for fans of crime fiction that has something to say. A great holiday read.

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