“The Old Woman with the Knife” by Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo’s The Old Woman with the Knife is ostensibly a violent slasher novel about an aging assassin, known in the novel as a “Disease Controller” trying to end her storied career on her own terms. But wrapped in this visceral package, the book dives into the reality of an aging woman in a society apathetic to her plight, and indeed to her in general. 

Our heroine of sorts only goes by her code name “Hornclaw”; earlier in her career, her nickname was the only slightly less threatening, though foreshadowing,  “Nails”. An aging everywoman, she is unremarkable in almost every other aspect, and indistinguishable from the growing number of older women on the streets of any major Korean city.


Now her age is just another reason for people to dismiss her on sight … She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones.


The Old Woman With the Knife, Gu Byeong-mo, Chi-Young Kim (trans) ( Hanover Square, Cannongate, March 2022)
The Old Woman With the Knife, Gu Byeong-mo, Chi-Young Kim (trans) (Hanover Square, Canongate, March 2022)

The Old Woman with the Knife is both a fast-paced thriller and a meditation on the place of a 65-year-old woman in modern society. The pithy yet evocative translation by Chi-Young Kim gives Hornclaw an understated wit accented with wisdom born of a difficult life, making for a sympathetic if unorthodox protagonist.

Hornclaw lives a simple life in a drab, spartan apartment; she has no friends to speak of, and those who might have been considered loved ones are all long dead. Her only attachment is a mutt aptly named “Deadbeat” with whom she has a distant relationship despite sharing a small apartment.

Like many Korean women of her generation, she has fought hard to make her way in a difficult world. Born into acute poverty in an era when nearly everyone was poor, she made a life for herself as a brutal assassin, “Disease Controlling” for a fair sum.  Her job has required peak physical fitness and a keen, cunning wit. Now in the twilight of her career, she knows both are failing and  the not-so-subtle hints to retire are becoming louder.


The book is the story of her last mission and her attempts to retire on her own terms with the proper amount of dignity she feels due. But her path is beset with rivals, growing feelings of compassion, enemies with grudges, and of course the broken and bloodied bodies of those she must eliminate.

Beyond the physical violence which forms the core and framework of the story, Hornclaw’s internal ruminations provide a window into the issues facing elderly women in Korea, albeit through the lens of a particularly unique representative. She feels society’s scorn, not so much for her career in crime, but merely because she is part of a group everyone else has grown weary of. The old take seats on public transportation, collect expensive pensions, drink and argue in parks, and have anointed themselves guardians of a moral code best left in the past.


As the focus is on prolonging life without having fully considered its quality, an old person living in a society with an average lifespan of one hundred years is like a prophetic shaman who forgets to include “pretty and young” when praying for eternal life and forever ends up with a wrinkly face and a hunched back.


Despite her job being dangerous at best and illegal at worst, Hornclaw still feels the same pressure that many of her generation who put their whole lives into a profession feel. Jobs gave them purpose, meaning, a reason to live. Without them, they are lost.  In the face of obviously deteriorating skills and slowing of mind and body they continue to work. Hornclaw is no exception, as she continues to kill despite knowing her tactical skills are not as keen as they once were, and her knifings not as precise.

Although framed in gory violence, Hornclaw evokes something specific, at least by reputation, to her generation of Koreans. Times were hard following the end of the Japanese Occupation and Korean War, and women in particular were never allowed the luxury of laziness, forced to work and take care of the home and family. Hornclaw’s sacrifices are of an entirely different sort, but the fact that they also—in their way—paved the way for the prosperous, democratic Korea of today, is both a reflection of and an ironic commentary on old habits and out-of-date views—views which, it hardly need be pointed out, are entirely exclusive to Korea.

Patrick McShane is the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary journal Hwæl-Weġ.