Monthly Archives: April 2022

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. 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. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

This novel was Iris Murdoch’s first and I chose it as my contribution to the 1954 Club (see below). I was at first reluctant because I am more than a little intimidated by Iris Murdoch. I think it’s the words ‘moral philosopher’ that are often coupled with her name. I don’t know what that is. And when I began reading about this novel, Under the Net, I came across the name of Wittgenstein, and something about his lectures in Oxford. 

All the same, I enjoyed many aspects of this novel, although I am not sure that I will read more of her fiction any time soon.

Under the Net

I believe that it Under the Net is a picaresque novel. The hero, Jake, and his friends certainly dash about London and meet with some very surprising adventures, coincidences and strange characters. Jake tells his own story, and thus provides us with insights into his attitude to life.

We first meet the Jake on his return to London from Paris (he works as a translator) when he finds that he and his side-kick Finn have been kicked out of the flat they were living in – rent free. It belonged to Jake’s girlfriend Marge.  Jake is a writer, not very energetic, and not very successful. Being without accommodation precipitates a series of crazy adventures: Sammy wants to move into Marge’s flat, but it appears that he steals a manuscript from Jake, and is involved in a plot with the sister another of Jake’s ex-girlfriends, Anna, to make a film. Sadie is a well-known film star. The plot becomes crazier as Jake and his friends kidnap a performing dog, Mr Mars, to hold hostage against the return of his manuscript. Jake’s old friend Hugo, with whom Jake fell out some years before and who is extremely rich and big in the film business, gets involved too, as does Lefty …

The scenes include a shop near Charlotte Street, run by Mrs Tinckham, overrun with cats, but a place where Jake can leave his luggage while he chasers Anna, and searches for somewhere to live. Mrs Tinck acts as a poste restante which is useful at a time when there were no mobile phones. Mrs Tinck doesn’t appear to sell anything.

The props room at the mime theatre provides some strong visual images (see the cover of the Penguin edition). The scene where Mr Mars is kidnapped is quite hilarious as they are forced to take the cage as well as the dog, put it in a taxi and then release the dog. Mr Mars becomes a faithful companion to Jake, but not suitable for ransom demands. There’s a riot caused by the police breaking up one of Lefty’s meetings on the set of a film. There is a midnight swim in the Thames when the friends have failed to find Hugo, despite following the note on his door which says, ‘Down the Pub’. Jake takes a job as a hotel porter, and when an injured Hugo comes onto his ward, he hatches a plot to spring him, which involves a great deal of complication. 

Jake is also averse to chance, contingencies, but constantly falls over them. 

There are some parts in London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason. (26)

Everything that happens to Jake is contingent, always seeking someone, rarely finding them and never where he expects them to be. He chases Hugo without success but comes across him unexpectedly at the studio and in the hospital. Perhaps Iris Murdoch is reminding us that whatever theory we use to understand the world, we are at the mercy of whatever life sends our way. 

As he rushes about, we see that not everything is as it appears: the aftermath of the riot on the film set of the Roman city is a good example.

All was changed. The whole of Rome was now horizontal and out of its ruins an immense cloud of dust was rising, thick as a fog in the glare of the lamps. In the arena, like a formal picture of the battle of Waterloo, stood a mass of black figures, some mounted on horses, others standing on top of cars, and others on foot marshalling into neat groups. A voice was saying something blurred through a loudspeaker. The foreground looked more like the moment after the battle. The ground was strewn with legless torsos and halves of men and others cut off at the shoulders, all of whom, however, were lustily engaged in restoring themselves to wholeness by dragging the hidden parts of their anatomy out from under the flat wedges of scenery, which lay now like a big pack of cards, some still showing bricks and marble, while others revealed upon their prostrate backs the names of commercial firms and instructions to the scene shifter. (169)

Even the final explanation for all these misadventures is misunderstood by Jake, who manages to mistake the reference to ‘she’ for a whole page, before he (and us) backtrack and understand that Jake has misread everything. 

I enjoyed the escapades across London, the Holborn Viaduct and the pub crawl, the river at Hammersmith, the Goldhawk Road area. He even chases the elusive Anna in Paris. It’s what Michael Wood called ‘a very sprightly read’ in his LRB article.

Iris Murdoch

Born in 1919 Iris Murdoch pursued a career in philosophy, teaching at St Anne’s College, Oxford from 1948 – 1963. Under the Net was the first of the 26 novels published by Iris Murdoch between 1954 and 1995. She died in 1999.

I have always been a little reluctant to engage with the philosophy in Iris Murdoch’s fiction. This is quite light, but the title refers to notion from Wittgenstein about how we know and describe the world. Apparently, he referred to as net and she challenges this by saying look under the net where real life happens.

Another from my mother’s books from the World Book Club.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch published in 1954. I used the edition from the World Book Club 286pp. A recent edition has been published by Vintage.

Related posts

Don’t Worry about the Pronouns by Michael Wood on London Review of Books website in January 2019.

JacquiWine’s Journal review of Under the Net from November 2019.

The 1954 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings Bloggers post their responses to books published in 1954 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Readers of my blog have previously enjoyed O Pioneers! and My Antonia. Both these novels by Willa Cather were from her early period when she delighted in the people who turned the vast prairies of middle America into vast wheat fields and made themselves a good living. The families she described came from the European diaspora, chasing some kind of idyll. By the time she came to write A Lost Lady in 1923 the world had turned, and new generations, new values and new enterprises were changing the mid-west again. This short novel is concerned with these changes.

A Lost Lady

The novel is set at the end of the 19th century, in a town that had been key to the great railroad building enterprises of that century. The story opens with a description of the Forrester Place just outside Sweet Water, and of its social importance to the ‘railroad aristocracy of that time’. The novel is chiefly told from the point of view of Niel, a young citizen of Sweet Water, an observer of the comings and goings at the Forrester Place on the hill. Think The Great Gatsby. Niel observes the Forresters’s summer visits and their many wealthy guests, and when they come to live permanently in Sweet Water he is of service to the couple. 

Captain Forrester is twenty-five years older than his wife. It is his second marriage. He made his money as a railroad entrepreneur and came to live at Sweet Water because he was attracted by the hill where he built his house. The Captain and his wife represent the old ways, the pioneers, with values of trust and decency. The Captain loses his fortune because he insists that the board of his bank honours the small investors, and so loses everything. Later he has a series of strokes and comes to depend on his wife and a decreasing circle of friends.

Mrs Forrester is very beautiful and charming and very popular with everyone. She is a generous hostess and does not dismiss the young boys of Sweet Water. Niel is a boy when he first meets her, and he falls under her spell. He is a frequent visitor with his uncle, the Forresters’s lawyer. As a young man he goes East to study architecture and on his return 2 years later he finds the Captain is very frail and puts off his studies for a year while he helps care for him. The reader, as well as Niel, has noted that Mrs Forrester likes to drink and that she is not above having affairs with men she attracts. 

Niel’s generation are keen to make a quick profit, especially Ivy Peters, who is known to be cruel and have no respect for money and class. As the Forresters’s fortunes decline Ivy takes advantage, first he rents and then he buys the land and the house and even becomes intimate with Mrs Forrester. 

The difference in the values between the generation of pioneers, represented by the Captain and his friends, and the profiteers such as Ivy Peters is starkly explained in a passage where Niel meditates on his return to Still Water.

The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory that they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great landholders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest. All the way from the Missouri to the mountains this generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times, would do exactly what Ivy Peters had done when he drained the Forrester marsh. (104-5)

Mrs Forrester is the lost lady. She has been brought up to act as a charming social hostess, but she resents the restrictions of her life in Still Water. She does not flaunt her affairs, but her lack of faithfulness to her husband is shocking to Niel, especially when he understands that her husband knows. She drinks, and this too marks her as something of a fallen woman. 

Niel never had hopes or desires of becoming anything to Mrs Forrester, but he has valued the pioneer spirit and what it brought to that part of the country. He prefers the idea of Mrs Forrester to the realities of her life.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

Born in 1873, Willa Cather’s family moved to Nebraska when she was young, and she received her education there. She adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. She had a career as a journalist even before she began her novels. She was well-established by the time A Lost Lady was published in 1923. It was her 6th novel; she wrote 12 in all between 1912 and 1940. She travelled in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. 

Her qualities as a writer were often ignored in the second half of the twentieth century, but she has a strong following today. AS Byatt is among her admirers. Readers have a high regard for her evocation of place. It plays its part too in A Lost Lady.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, first published in 1923. Reissued as a Virago Modern Classic 1983, with an introduction by AS Byatt. 178 pp

Related posts

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (October 2018)

My Antonia by Willa Cather (January 2018) 

Book Snob’s review of A Lost Lady from May 2010

HeavenAli’s blog review of A Lost Lady from December 2014

AS Byatt’s article in the Guardian about Willa Cather, American Pastoral, from December 2006

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Shirley Hazzard – Collected Stories

Lovers of short stories should be aware of this excellent writer. She did not write a great deal, five novels, some works of non-fiction and some short stories. A collection of 28 of these has been made by Brigitta Olubas, published by Virago in 2020. You will find critics using such expressions as precise, surgical, elegant, decorousness, scalpel-sharp prose, polished, bitingly funny. Her stories are all these things. 

Collected Stories

The stories in the first section of this collection are mostly about relationships, often with a young girl at the mercy of a jaded older man, who is pretty hapless. Her observational skills are superb. She is both moral and accurate. Here is a moment in the conversation between Clem, a married man of 42 who is trying to let Nettie down lightly at the end of their love affair. She is a young woman of very little experience.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked her.
“Men,” she said absently.
Taken aback by the plural, he stopped to assemble his thoughts once more. She was not being very encouraging, lowering her eyes and offering him monosyllables in this way. But there was no reason why she should encourage him, and he reminded himself of that; he was nothing if not fair. (38 A Place in the Country)

Shirley Hazzard is not so interested in the drama in the stories, more about the importance of people making authentic connections. As Zoe Heller remarks in her foreword about this story, Nettie, urged by her lover not to “exaggerate the importance” of her broken heart, ‘understands instinctively that the greater sin is to take such matters of the heart lightly’. (xi)

The middle section includes stories mostly set in the ‘Organisation’, which is the UN in a thin disguise, where Shirley Hazzard worked for many years in the 1950s. The stories reveal a certain smugness in the men in high positions. She is not above lampooning organisational speak, people’s attitudes to themselves, the hierarchies of the Organisation, the pointlessness of much of the work and the ability of the organisation to believe that its work had value where there is none.

‘The Meeting’ is a story about Flinders who has been running an operation in a north African country, replanting trees. He makes a presentation to a subcommittee of the Organisation, DALTO (the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented), about his project, but he does not know how to speak their language, whereas another presentation at the same meeting is smooth and accompanied by a film but appears to have done nothing. 

He left the room and walked down a gray corridor. He wished he had gone to the trouble of taking a proper film, like Edrich, or had at least prepared the right kind of final report. At El Attara he had thought these things peripheral, but here they seemed to matter most of all. He should have been able to address the meeting in its own language – the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations, which he had never set himself to master. At El Attara they had needed help and he had done what he could, but he found himself unable to speak of this work. He knew the problem of erosion to be immense, and the trees, being handed down that way had looked so few and so small. (171 The Meeting)

There is humour in her description of the language of meetings: the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations. But more than that, this seems to be an indictment of the work of a great organisation, loftily above the needs of ordinary citizens of the world, and quite out of touch with the reality of those lives: he knew the problem of erosion to be immense. The problem appears to be erosion of the Organisation’s purposes.

Among the uncollected and unpublished stories in the third section is ‘Leave it to me’ about the hypocrisy of well-informed people. A group assemble in an Italian house, witnessing a fire in the fields. The English host complains that the Italians used to work together to extinguish such fires, but they don’t now. They let it burn. The party let it burn. Later they go outside to see how it’s going and find that the fire has been extinguished. 

I have picked out a couple of quotations, but these short stories are full of such moments, which add up to a collection of thoughtful and intelligent observations of the worlds in which Shirley Hazzard moved, and which have relevance today. They reveal that Shirley Hazzard was as brilliant a writer of short fiction as of longer works.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzzard; Christopher Peterson, New York. October 29, 2007 via WikiCommons

Shirley Hazzard was born in 1931 in Sydney, Australia. Her father moved the family when he took up a diplomatic position in Hong Kong in 1947, and they moved back to Australia and on to New Zealand before they settled in New York from 1951. She worked at the UN for about 10 years and was critical of its failings. She spent time in Italy and developed a love of the country. She died in 2016 in New York.

The Transit of Venus was published in 1980, and The Great Fire in 2003. Both books gained awards for excellence. Some of her essays have been collected in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas and published by Virago in 2020.  356pp

Related posts

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (September 2020)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

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