... 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 ... 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 ... 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way for the prosperous, democratic Korea of today, is both a reflection of and an ironic commentary on old habits and out-of-date views—views which, it hardly need be pointed out, are entirely exclusive to Korea.
Smooth, literary, extremely interesting – in many ways it cuts to the heart of things ... Very quickly, you will find yourself in the curious moral position of sympathising with and cheering on Hornclaw – who has ruthlessly murdered hundreds of people – as she uses her skills not to take life but to protect it. For all its poetic moments and literary creds, the final fight scene is quite something. It’s detailed, brutal and visceral, taking the raw, elemental qualities of Gu Byeong-mo’s writing to darker and more violent places ... might be a little slow for some crime fiction lovers, it’s a fascinating read and gives us a rare insight – in crime fiction terms, at least – into life in South Korea. As well as the commentary on ageing and the book’s voluminous emotional content, it was interesting that in this fictional state murder is corporatised and even assassins are chewed up and spat out by uncaring capitalist enterprise. Never mind health and safety or pensions…
... a brisk narrative that offers a thoughtful reflection on societal attitudes on the aging process in Korea and elsewhere. In Kim’s fluid translation, the novel resembles recent South Korean narratives that became popular in the United States, like Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film Parasite and Hwang Dong-hyuk’s 2021 television series Squid Game; like these works, The Old Woman With the Knife uses occasionally cartoonish action and horror sequences to offer a broader social commentary.
[Hornclaw] is by far the most intriguing character I have encountered in years ... has a sense of immediacy from the start ... 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.
The colliding of these two plot strands makes for a claustrophobic slow-burn, a game of cat-and-mouse in which the hunter becomes the hunted ... While an intriguing concept, there is scope here for additional character development, both of Hornclaw herself and of Bullfight, her tortured adversary ... The book’s strongest comments stem from observations about illness and deceleration, while the trauma and loneliness of these assassins’ lifestyles, especially that of our elderly protagonist, is portrayed less convincingly towards the rather formulaic climax. Nonetheless Beyong-mo’s darkly comic style addresses her primary themes with a light touch ... though Hornclaw’s story unfolds in the bustling streets of a South Korean city, the book’s real concern transcends nationality. It focuses engagingly and compassionately on the invisibility of ageing citizens, “overripe fruit”, the fears associated with retirement — of 'being considered worthless even though you’re still alive'.
The realistic detail with which Gu describes the agency’s day-to-day operations prevents the novel from veering into a melodramatic blood bath, as do the novel’s incisive observations about the harsh economic and social realities of modern Korean society, including economic recession, poverty among senior citizens, and the effects of the lingering American military presence. Behind the skillfully rendered (if occasionally drawn-out) fight scenes, Gu poignantly animates the desperate circumstances that motivate these characters to turn to contract killing in the first place. Despite Gu’s skill in dramatizing details, though, the novel's larger narrative arc and epiphanies can feel rushed and mechanical. At times it seems that the characters could use a few more chapters for their complex lives to unfold in a way that does their transformations justice ... A thriller with heart that would benefit from more time to beat just a bit longer.