When you think of a 65-year-old woman, what does your brain conjure up? Perhaps you see her taking care of her grandchildren or socializing with other seniors in a community space, a senior living facility, or at a park. Maybe she is suffering from ailing joints or debilitated by disease.
But what about an assassin?
Hornclaw the Assassin
Author Gu Byeong-Mo challenges society’s views of senior women through her first English-translated work The Old Woman With the Knife (known as “Pagwa” in Korean), which was published in 2022. Her protagonist, who goes by the pseudonym Hornclaw, has been an assassin (or disease control specialist) for most of her life and finds herself increasingly contemplating retirement as she notices her once-sharp killer instincts and reflexes were becoming dull with age. She has no family and lives in a tiny apartment with her late-acquired rescue dog Deadweight, aptly named for her foolishness since assassins never know if they will return home.
The book is not what one would expect since it is lacks a lot of high-action suspense and thrills, but that in itself supports an overall theme in the book: that things aren’t always what they appear to be. Though violence and action sequences are present, the pace of the plot is slower compared to a crime thriller because it is mainly an examination of Hornclaw’s life and how she does not fit in with society’s expectations.
Hornclaw gets particularly vexed about how these expectations are ingrained in the language. In the English version, she is addressed as “Ma’am,” but in the Korean version, the word used would directly translate to “Mother,” a term used for older (hence married with children or grandmotherly) women, an image Hornclaw rejects since she does not identify herself this way even though she looks like one to everybody else.
As Hornclaw gets closer to her last contracted kill, she becomes enthralled after an unexpected injury leads her to a kind doctor. This coincides with feelings of inadequacy as she notices her agency is encouraging her to retire. Feeling moved by his kindness, she gets acquainted with his parents, who are fruit vendors at a traditional market, as well as his daughter, developing a soft spot for them. One day the daughter is kidnapped by a mysterious connection from her past, and Hornclaw must do what she can to save this innocent family—objects of her affection—from grief.
Breaking Down Stereotypes
Though Gu is not 65, one of her goals was to show how much she rejected Korean society’s perception of elderly women. The book was originally published in 2013 and was written while she was in her thirties. Though her book was not popular at first, it was more widely noticed after a second edition was published in 2018 by a different publisher. In an interview with The Korea Society, she said that women in their sixties are often seen as sacrificing mothers who put their whole family first and put themselves last.
“Maybe those who are in their sixties right now are a slightly different generation, so I should categorically say instead of women in their sixties, just old women in general, are seen as this icon of sacrifice and service. And I really disliked that image, and I don’t think I was the only one who disliked that stereotype,” she said. “I’m sure many young women today reject that notion. The image of an old woman with the knife was born out of that. If an old woman took a knife, that was to cook for her family. But I wanted to say that is not all, that is not what I want, and that we should break the stereotype, or else we could be in trouble.”
Gu plays with this idea with the Korean title “Pagwa.” Pagwa is a homonym in Sinographic cultures. By changing the Chinese characters slightly, it can have several different meanings. In Korean, pagwa is an industry term that means bruised or damaged fruit that have no commercial value, but by changing the characters, it can also mean a 16-year-old woman at the cusp of youth or refer to a 64-year-old man.
“I chose it as the title for its symbolism to represent a person who was past their prime,” she said in an interview with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. “The title has a double meaning, a cruelly ironic one. In translation, of course, it’s impossible to keep both meanings, so either we would choose a completely new title, or go with the meaning of damaged fruit.”
The Old Woman With the Knife is a breezy and refreshing page-turner. As someone who has often fallen under the careless assumptions of other people, I was surprised to find that the protagonist’s feelings about herself and others resonated with me. Gu puts just the right balance of action, mystery, and suspense while also adding the right amount of introspection as Hornclaw assesses society and contemplates her past and future. If anyone has regularly experienced other people’s assumptions (which is probably everybody), you might find this entertaining and feel a little less alone in the process.