The Old Woman With the Knife

Gu Byeong-mo

The Old Woman With the Knife
Canongate Books Ltd
United Kingdom
17 May 2022

The Old Woman With the Knife

Gu Byeong-mo

Hornclaw is a sixty-five-year-old female contract killer who is considering retirement. A fighter who has experienced loss and grief early on in life, she lives in a state of self-imposed isolation, with just her dog, Deadweight, for company.

While on an assassination job for the 'disease control' company she works for, Hornclaw makes an uncharacteristic error, causing a sequence of events that brings her past well and truly into the present.

Threatened with sabotage by a young male upstart and battling new desires and urges when she least expects them, Hornclaw steels her resolve, demonstrating that no matter their age, the female of the species is always more deadly than the male.


Hornclaw is a 65-year-old contract killer; still lethal but considering retirement. While she may not get an invite to my fantasy dinner party for my favourite literary characters (forpractical reasons), I would miss her presence. She is by far the most intriguing character I have encountered in years.

The Old Woman with the Knife, by South Korean writer Gu Byeong-Mo, has a sense of immediacy from the start. We begin in the crowded subway in Seoul on a Friday evening and within 10 pages we have witnessed our protagonist in action. For 45 years, Hornclaw has worked as a ‘disease control specialist’ after she was taken in as a teenager by the family of the company’s founder. While Hornclaw could now leave the profession and see out the rest of her days comfortably with her dog, Deadweight, she is trying to hold on physically and mentally. But now her age just gives people another reason to either ignore (or in the case of younger fellow specialist Bullfight) taunt her. When Hornclaw makesa rare error during one of her assignments, the physical and personal sacrifices she has made are magnified, prompting her to re- examine her future.

I wanted to read this novel based solely on its character premise and was thrilled to find that it met my expectations. Translated by award-winning literary translator Chi-Young Kim, The Old Woman with the Knife is a hybrid of thriller, action and life story which is both entertaining and moving. The themes and symbolism may not always be dealt with subtly, but this tone harmonises with the story, and most importantly the character. I hope this is not the last we see of Hornclaw; I could easily devour more books about her. At the very least this book is born to be a movie or series, with a number of talented female Korean actors as possibilities for what I think would be the role of a lifetime.

Amanda Rayner is from Readings carlton

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