In a city called Nevers, there lives a professor of literature called Q. He has a dull marriage and a lackluster career, but also a scrumptious collection of antique dolls locked away in his cupboard. And soon Q lands his crowning acquisition: a music box ballerina named Aliss who has tantalizingly sprung to life. Guided by his mysterious friend Owlish and inspired by an inexplicably familiar painting, Q embarks on an all-consuming love affair with Aliss, oblivious to the protests spreading across the university that have left his classrooms all but empty. The mountainous city of Nevers is itself a mercurial character with concrete flesh, glimmering new construction, and "colonial flair." Having fled there as a child refugee, Q thought he knew the faces of the city and its people, but Nevers is alive with secrets and shape-shifting geographies.
Owlish often feels like a dream in which Tse does a masterful job of amping up the tensions ... While Owlish doesn’t boast a specific or obvious political agenda, it certainly raises vital questions about what it means to live under colonial and authoritarian rule—and how easy it is for many of us to ignore the rising specter of tyranny.
A darkly fantastical parable about totalitarianism ... For such a wildly inventive read, Owlish veers disorientingly close to reality ... Tse’s mordant humor and descriptive powers lift the narrative from unmitigated gloom ... Surreal, genre-bending.
Translated into a playful and sinuous English by Natascha Bruce ... Tse describes Aliss with characteristic slyness ... Tse’s interest in machines becoming people brings her back to the circumstances that turn people into machine.