“Owlish” by Dorothy Tse

Dorothy Tse Dorothy Tse

A shimmering, fairy-tale city of glass towers where nothing is quite as it seems: this is the vision of Hong Kong presented by award-winning writer Dorothy Tse in her first solo novel.

The premise echoes ETA Hoffman’s short story, The Sandman, where a young man falls in love with a mechanical female doll. In Tse’s version, the lover is Professor Q, a middle-aged and mid-ranking academic whose potential promotion at the university keeps being turned down. After a phantasmagorical night in the city’s entertainment district, Q is given a life-size musical box featuring a dancing ballerina, Aliss. On the advice of his friend Owlish, he instals her in a “love nest”—a rented and abandoned church on an island away from the city and his wife’s prying eyes. In this sanctuary, Aliss comes to life and they begin a physical love affair. Obsessed by his living doll, Professor Q is only dimly aware of the political protests back at the university.

Alas for Professor Q, a nightmarish reality soon breaks the spell. The authorities force him to give up the church and its contents, including Aliss, so they can use it as a base to attack dissenters, some of which are the Professor’s former students. Disorientated, he agrees to accept tenure at the university, his long-desired promotion, and to remain silent. Aliss, ostensibly dead, is later dredged out of a river.


Owlish, Dorothy Tse, Natascha Bruce (trans) (Fitzcarraldo, Feburary 2023)
Owlish, Dorothy Tse, Natascha Bruce (trans) (Fitzcarraldo, Feburary 2023)

Owlish is hard to categorize exactly but there are parallels with the works of magical realism writers, especially Angela Carter. Tse uses many common tropes of that genre such as mirrors, magicians, clowns and other reality-twisting devices. Great magical realism however is more than including a few recognisable motifs. With consummate skill, Tse also builds a strange yet somehow familiar backdrop for her story. She endows Hong Kong with mythological status by changing the names of places so that contemporary Hong Kong becomes, at least in translation, Nevers, Britain is known as Valeria and mainland China Ksana. The recounting of Hong Kong’s history in this way reads like a legend, or even a parable, and yet is simultaneously accepted, verifiable fact.

Fact is equally as important as fiction for Tse as she tends to keep the magical quality of her narrative anchored in realism. There are occasions where she uses this to deliver a hard emotional punch by implicitly describing an unpleasant episode and then delivering a pithy dose of reality. This is seen in Professor Q’s arrival in Nevers, packed into a crate as a stowaway and imagining that when he is released, he might have transformed in some way. Tse writes:


He didn’t know what he would turn into, but out there in the pitch-black embrace of the ocean he felt his cramping legs start to crumble, until eventually they disappeared. This was why, when the magic box was finally opened and someone extended a hand to pull him onto shore, he didn’t know how to follow their orders and run for it.


In her Afterword, Tse writes about her interest in the hazy boundary between dreaming and being awake. That gap is the very short-lived state of “awakening”, where the past collides with the present and opens up alternatives, questions and potentially enlightenment. Bearing this in mind, the novel can be read on many levels. The simplest are a tragic love story or a critique of male and female relationships. Another interpretation is that Professor Q is trying to reconnect with his younger, more creative self; Owlish, it transpires, is not a friend but a pen name he used for his first attempts at poetry. Alternatively, Aliss could be viewed as a metaphor for Hong Kong itself: used, abused and finally jettisoned.

While all these themes are evident, Tse has a wider scheme in mind which becomes clearer as the novel progresses. Both Professor Q and his wife, Maria, receive explicit warning signs that the authoritarian Vanguard party, which controls Ksana, is about to sweep away the existing political structure and change liberal Nevers irrevocably. But neither of them chooses to do anything about it. In Maria’s case, it is easier to pretend it doesn’t exist because “while things were still hidden, they weren’t real.”

Likewise, in a switch of point of view to the second person, Tse provides a long list of actual red flags. They include history textbooks being altered and a member of the opposition party barred from running for election. Tse ends this section with a point-blank statement: “You should have seen this coming.”

The novel’s final image is of the “drowned” Aliss, fished out of the water and surrounded by a perplexed crowd. There is no doubt she is a doll, yet genuine blood is gushing from a wound on her arm. Is she real or not, and who can tell? The reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that there’s more than a grain of truth in this fantastical story.

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.