The Old Woman with the Knife

A Novel

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*A New York Times Book Review Notable Book*

*An NPR Best Book of the Year*

*An NPR Book We Love*

*A New York Times Editors’ Choice Pick*

*A Most Anticipated Read in LitHub, CrimeReads, Thrillist, and Popsugar*

*A Boston Globe Thriller to Read on Your Summer Vacation*

*A Crime Reads Best International Crime Fiction for 2022*

The kinetic story of a sixty-five-year-old female assassin who faces an unexpected threat in the twilight of her career–this is an international bestseller and the English language debut from an award-winning South Korean author 

At sixty-five, Hornclaw is beginning to slow down. She lives modestly in a small apartment, with only her aging dog, a rescue named Deadweight, to keep her company. There are expectations for people her age–that she’ll retire and live out the rest of her days quietly. But Hornclaw is not like other people. She is an assassin.

Double-crossers, corporate enemies, cheating spouses–for the past four decades, Hornclaw has killed them all with ruthless efficiency, and the less she’s known about her targets, the better. But now, nearing the end of her career, she has just slipped up. An injury leads her to an unexpected connection with a doctor and his family. But emotions, for an assassin, are a dangerous proposition. As Hornclaw’s world closes in, this final chapter in her career may also mark her own bloody end.

A sensation in South Korea, and now translated into English for the first time by Chi-Young Kim, The Old Woman with the Knife is an electrifying, singular, mordantly funny novel about the expectations imposed on aging bodies and the dramatic ways in which one woman chooses to reclaim her agency.


So this is what it's like on the subway on Friday nights. You feel grateful to discover space just wide enough to slide a sheet of paper between bodies stuck together like mollusks. You're bathed in the stench of meat and garlic and alcohol anytime anyone opens their mouth, but you're relieved because those scents signify the end of your workweek. You momentarily set aside the existential anxiety over whether you would still be taking the subway home at rush hour next year, next month or even next week. When the doors open at the next station and a river of workers gushes out, she steps in—into their exhaustion, into their visible anguish, into their longing to race home where they can fling their sodden selves onto their beds.

The woman, whose gray hair is covered by an ivory-colored felt hat, is wearing a subdued flower-print shirt, a classic khaki linen coat and black straight-leg pants, and is carrying a brown medium-sized bag on her arm. She is actually sixty-five years old, but the number and depth of the grooves in her face make her look closer to eighty. The way she carries herself and the way she dresses won't leave a strong impression on anyone. The only time anyone pays attention to senior citizens on the subway is when they bump into people as they carry a bundle of discarded newspapers scavenged from one end of the train to the other, or because they're decked out in baggy, purple polka-dot pants, and lugging a pungent bundle of ginger and sesame oil, loudly announcing, "Ouch, my back!" until someone offers them a seat. Sometimes it's for the opposite reason—an older woman forgoing the short, permed style common among the elderly and instead boasting straight white hair to her waist, sun spots inexpertly concealed with powder and eyeliner drawn with a wavering hand, or, even worse, wearing bright red lipstick or a miniskirt suit in pastel colors. The former type of elderly citizen evokes disgust while the latter is so incongruous that onlookers are mortified; regardless, both are one and the same, as people don't want to think about them.

In that sense, 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 occupied priority seats 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 Dongdaemun 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 that 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.

At the next stop, an old man with a cane gets up, hacking up phlegm hard enough to dislodge his internal organs, and she sits down in the vacated seat. She pushes down the brim of her hat and takes a zippered, pocket-size Bible bound in fake leather out of her bag. An older person opening a Bible on her lap and reading one word at a time, tracing the lines with a loupe, isn't odd or novel in a subway car. Nobody pays any mind as long as she doesn't grab strangers by the arm, ranting about Jesus and heaven and nonbelievers and hell. It's common for the elderly to turn to God late in life, and read Biblical or Buddhist scriptures once death starts bombarding them from all directions—more unusual would be if they were reading Analects of Confucius or Mencius, a book selection that would reveal intellectual curiosity and an elegance of thought. Even more shocking, especially for an elderly woman, would be to read something by Plato or Hegel or Kant or Spinoza, or Das Kapital, which would draw surprised gazes and perhaps doubts as to whether she really understands what she's reading.

With her normal appearance, and behavior that meets societal expectations, she skates under the radar, sitting with her head bowed, reading the enlarged words through her loupe. At some point she raises only her eyes, peering diagonally over her glasses.

She sees a man in his late fifties, standing. He appears to be dozing, holding on to the strap above. His graying hair is tipped in black—perhaps he was too busy to dye his hair again—and he's wearing a leather jacket and black slacks and scuffed black Ferragamo shoes. Looped around his wrist is the sort of clutch bag that is typically stuffed with documents and bills, and carried by debt collectors working for loan sharks. She doesn't take her eyes off him as he sways with the movement of the train.

The man startles awake. Perhaps embarrassed, he suddenly drills his finger into the forehead of a young woman sitting in the seat right in front of him; she looks up, aghast, then looks back to her cell phone, and the man jabs her in the forehead again, a little harder this time. At first, people around them assume she's his daughter, but soon realize they are strangers. "What are you doing, mister?" asks the young woman in a clipped tone, and the man's voice rises, outraged. "Mister? How dare you talk to me like that when you're just sitting there staring at your phone, ignoring the senior citizen in front of you?" People begin murmuring. "I'm pregnant," the young woman says calmly. Hearing that, everyone, including the old woman reading the Bible, casts their eyes reflexively at her belly, but as she's wearing a baby-doll top it's hard to tell if she's showing, though she does look tired and her face is puffy. The man gets louder. "You young girls these days, you don't do your duty. You don't get married or have babies. Instead, you only talk about being pregnant when it's convenient for you. You think I can't tell the difference between pregnancy and being fat from stuffing your face with fried chicken and pigs' feet? And even if you are, are you the only one who's ever been pregnant? Do you think you're the only one to ever have a baby?" He jabs her head after each sentence, not stopping even as the woman swats his finger away a few times. She looks around for help, but all the middle-aged and elderly men sitting around her are avoiding her gaze or faking sleep. She shouts, "Stop picking on me, why don't you pick on these men? I said I'm pregnant!"

The man glances around, and when it seems clear that nobody will come to her aid, he raps her on the head and says, "How dare you lie about being pregnant and talk back to your elder?" The young woman's head smacks into the window behind her and she begins to sniffle, though she is likely not hurt. Finally, a woman in her early fifties, who's sitting across the aisle next to a seat reserved for mothers and pregnant women, gets up and taps the man on the shoulder. "Sir, there's a seat over here." The man grouses and acts as if he's being magnanimous, then sits down, crosses his arms over his bag and closes his eyes.

The older woman approaches the young woman and pats her on the shoulder. "Miss, I mean, mama, don't cry. You can't cry over these things, especially since you'll be a mom soon." She lowers her voice a little. "Don't be upset, not all old people are like him. That man isn't even that old and he just wanted—" Right then there's an announcement that the train will slow in preparation to stop at the next station, and the young woman stands up and screams, "But that's who I had to deal with! So what if not everyone's like him?"

The man in question couldn't have fallen asleep that quickly, but his eyes are closed as if he can't hear the commotion, and the young woman shakes off the other woman's consoling words and steps out onto the platform, although it's unclear whether this is her stop or if she is fleeing the situation. The doors close and the woman in her fifties wavers before sitting down in the now-empty seat, and people around them eye the man disdainfully before letting the incident go. The old woman also drops her gaze back to her Bible. As her work is based on not being noticed, from her behavior to her jewelry, she feels no guilt about her lack of involvement in the altercation.

She wouldn't have involved herself even if nobody had jumped in; she would have placidly observed the young woman's tears and dismay.

Five stops later, with the announcement of the next station and transfer information, the man opens his eyes and stands up. The old woman closes her Bible and gets up. She stands behind the man, who is now in front of the doors, not too close but close enough that nobody else can slip in between them.

The train stops and the doors snap open like the release valve of a pressure cooker. The platform doors are not quite in line with the train doors. As is often the case at stations where you can transfer to other lines, it's chaotic, with people shoving one another as they get off, and middle-aged women holding bundles are pushing in without waiting, trying to find a free seat. Suddenly, the man stiffens and stops in his tracks, his hand rising to his chest, the clutch bag following suit. He's blocking the way, and people jostle him before he's finally thrust onto the platform.

"Get out of the way!" people call as they try to avoid him, but he continues to block the flow of traffic. A young man rushing toward the transfer point with a large sports bag on his shoulder twists to avoid him, but because the young man is so bulky and tall, the edge of his bag ends up socking the older man in the head. "Oh, sorry," the young man says as he looks back, but the older man is already facedown on the platform, his clutch buried under him. The young man turns pale and looks around frantically as if to broadcast that it wasn't his fault, but people, though they look on with concern, walk by without stopping. Even those who pause stand at a distance so that they won't be roped in to help, their gaze critical of the young man's carelessness and demanding that he take responsibility. At this misfortune the young man is forced to crouch and ask, "Are you okay, sir?" shaking him, before he realizes the situation is grave. A public service worker and a station employee rush over to turn the fallen man over, and his frozen, open pupils in his bluish face are like tunnels filled with deep, compacted darkness containing the end of the world. Because they have turned him onto his back, nobody has yet discovered the clean line of the blade that has scored the back of his leather jacket.

In the last bathroom stall she balls up the toilet paper she's unraveled in great quantity, quickly wipes off the remaining poison on the short dagger and flushes the stained paper. She would don surgical gloves at home to meticulously clean the residue. The poison is in the potassium cyanide family and causes paralysis in mere seconds once it enters the bloodstream, so she has to be cautious when she handles it, especially with the recent tremors in her hands. She closes the loupe cover over the dagger; the lens catches the light and twinkles on the metallic walls of the toilet stall. She slides the loupe in her bag before the girls washing their hands at the sink or chatting on the phone detect the flash of light.

She emerges from the bathroom and turns toward the exit, nearly colliding with a group of men. Emergency workers in orange uniforms leap down the stairs and fly over the turnstiles. The force of their movement rustles the front of her coat.

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner...

Didn't I tell you not 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 was just yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. She will exit and walk a block away to a bus stop, and from there she will take the first bus that comes and get off at a subway station on a different line farthest from this place, and go home the long way, tracing the largest orbit on roads spreading out like the fine lines on a palm, staying out as long as she physically can. She strolls leisurely to the exit, toward the glittering darkness overhead.

Around dawn, Hornclaw is wearing gray sweats, about to leave, when Deadweight wakes up. The dog approaches, wagging her tail, and as Hornclaw strokes her head she realizes she neglected to change the drinking water or fill the food bowl last night, exhausted as she was after cleaning up.

"Just wait till you're my age. You keep forgetting things."

The water in the dog bowl has nearly evaporated in the dry air of her apartment, and the few remaining bits of kibble have ossified. Hornclaw tosses the remnants and dunks the bowl in the sink to scrub it. She looks back at Deadweight.

"Although I guess we're about the same age in dog years."

She remembers the vet saying the dog was around twelve years old at their last visit, but she doesn't recall when that was or why she took her in, and those glimmering details mist her mind before vanishing. She can't recall exactly how many years ago she picked her up or where or why—whether the dog looked up at her from a cardboard box on the street with sad, wet eyes. Perhaps, on her way home from a job—though she was used to the repetitive nature of her work, she had still extinguished a life—she was overtaken by an urge that prodded her amygdala with the premonition that if she didn't take this dog home, there would be trouble in the future. What she knows for certain is that she would never have purchased her as a puppy. Even so, she named her Deadweight at the time, feeling foolish for having brought home a living being.

"Want to come with me?" she asks now even though she knows the answer. It's been a long time since Deadweight gave up accompanying her on her morning workouts and stayed behind to nap and laze around.

Hornclaw closes the door and leaves; once she's a block away, she finds herself wondering if she's filled the clean dishes with water and food, and maybe she did fill the food bowl and stuck it in the fridge without thinking, but she's too far from home to turn back now. When she feels that she left the iron plugged in or the stove on or the bath running, she always goes home to check, yet each time she wonders about something like that and hustles home, nothing of the sort actually transpired. Even if she forgot to fill the food bowl it would be fine. It's just dog food, and she's only gone for a few hours of exercise, not days away for a job.

At this point in her life she only goes to the mineral springs in a nearby wooded park. The range of exercise she can do shrinks with every passing year; now only jogging remains as a possibility. Simple exercise equipment like bars or steppers or the elliptical machine, installed for public use by the walking path, only help in maintaining baseline fitness, and she can't remember the last time she used a bench press or a pec deck machine.

Of course, she can always get a three-month gym membership if she wants to. Her bones and muscles are still strong and it won't be too hard to work those machines. You can see old people sweating and working out in any gym, and near her are two gyms with a few aging machines. But because they're coed, men are always hanging on the machines she needs and she never gets a chance to use them, and on top of that these gyms function less as an exercise space and more as a neighborhood gathering spot. She could go closer to Gangnam and find an exclusive fitness center primarily serving senior citizens in an upscale mixed-use building, but she doesn't want to unless she starts feeling a sense of crisis that she is physically falling apart; in fact, she's already stopped by one of those places and was miffed when the employee at the check-in desk said, "What's your building and unit number?" As if the gym was available only to residents of the complex. The clincher was the employee's surprise when she learned that Hornclaw not only didn't live there but wasn't even from the neighborhood, and asked, "Oh, I see, ma'am, how did you hear about us?" That could have been her way of asking in a warm, friendly way whether Hornclaw had heard of the place by word of mouth or online, but Hornclaw took it to mean This is not a place for someone like you. Then the employee went through the various options for maintaining and strengthening aging muscles and told her, "I'm glad you're here as we have a special class that you won't find anywhere else—it's an excellent choice for you." But Hornclaw had already turned away, snapping, "Don't call me ma'am!"

All of this is just an excuse, really, and there's another reason Hornclaw doesn't go to the gym. This is what happens frequently: a male trainer, who isn't even assigned to her, will come up to her as she lies on her back lifting dumbbells and, surprised by her bulging muscles, say, "Ma'am, I can't believe you're over sixty. I've seen few men your age who can do this, let alone women, most of whom think, why bother exercising at this age when the membership fee—honestly, it's not even that much—can buy sweets for grandchildren, and anyway what kind of workout have you been doing?"

Or other women exercising in the gym will gather around and act too familiar, saying that their mother-in-law who's the same age as Hornclaw refuses to exercise; or invite her to tea, confiding that every week the older folks in the gym get geared up to go hiking together but end up picnicking and drinking and dancing and singing and playing cards. Once, a young woman on the treadmill next to hers held out her business card and said she was a producer for a program that aired at six in the evening and that featured unusual people, and she asked her to come on the show to talk about being an older woman with a killer body. Instead of tearing up her membership card—which still had twenty days left—in front of the producer's eyes, Hornclaw simply chose to stop going to the gym and changed her phone number in order to avoid her trainer's calls.

Once spotted at the gym, younger disease control specialists could probably go on TV and show off their physique and pick up fans or detractors, and smile professionally while freely continuing to do their jobs incognito. Though it's not exactly the same, she knows that the husband of an online retail store CEO, who appeared on cable last year on a show about successful entrepreneurs, was a disease control specialist. Maybe he was just shy—he tried not to be on camera for more than a few seconds at a time, and he didn't look at the camera or smile. But he did end up holding their product and flashing a thumbs-up sign. They made baby food with a mother's care every morning with fresh ingredients, and delivered it. The man, who steamed sweet squash and ground meat and crushed tofu and chopped carrots with the very hands that completed his disease control assignments, brought out feelings of derision and pity in Hornclaw. But as she imagined how his experience with grinding and chopping must have come in handy in this new venture, her thoughts turned magnanimous—it took skill to perform a devoted husband's passivity as he helped his talented wife grow her business, then turn around and become an entirely different person. The key was to create and maintain multiple separate networks that never overlapped. For Hornclaw, whose use of the internet is limited to sending emails and reading articles, this level of duality would be too difficult and exhausting to execute, and altogether unnecessary for her to master at this late stage in her life.

It couldn't have been because of the broadcast—he was only on-screen for less than two minutes total—but Hornclaw heard that the specialist left their line of work at the beginning of the year. Clearly he'd failed to maintain separate spheres. Is he still making baby food with his wife, having accepted that he is now devoted to the family's wholesome business of funneling nutrition and love into their products?

As dawn retreats, the objects around her reveal their forms and the endless comings and goings of the middle-aged and elderly make it harder for Hornclaw to hog the exercise equipment for herself. She leaves the park.

At home, she finds Deadweight's bowls on the floor, properly filled as they should be; the dog must have had breakfast, as the mound of kibble is dented in the middle. Deadweight drops the cloth doll she was gnawing on and jumps up on Hornclaw, and once she feels Hornclaw's hands and the heat of the living she settles back and focuses on her toy again. It's not that she's not fond of her owner; she's learned her human's preferences and understands that she still finds it strange to feel the warmth of a living being and how unbearable it is for her to get used to it. Deadweight is there so that she doesn't lose her way, so that she comes home after work. The dog always maintains an appropriate distance, demonstrating that she is alive in the least intrusive and most optimal way.

At the agency Hornclaw rings the bell on the desk and Worryfixer comes out of the file room, stifling a yawn. Worryfixer knows she's the only one who comes in at this hour, and so they haven't done anything to straighten their rumpled clothes or their unkempt hair.

"What if I'm a client?" Hornclaw demands. "You should be a little more presentable."

"A client would call first. We don't even have a sign."

"Did you sleep in the file room again?"

"I was assisting someone all night. We need to reupholster the sofa in the file room. Maybe with buffalo hide or something? This one's so cheap. The rats have already chewed through it. At this rate I'm going to throw my back out."

"Nobody will stop you if you pay for it." Hornclaw hands over the documents from the completed job. "The Kim case is done. You can write up the report."

"And you confirmed the death, right?" Worryfixer's tone is casual, but Hornclaw is being asked this question more frequently and she's tired of it.

"I know this is part of the process and you're asking as a formality, but if you don't see it in the newspapers why don't you go talk to the reporters on the police beat?"

"I would get nothing. There's another scandal brewing, extensive plans to cover up corruption among National Assembly members."

"I wouldn't know about that, they do that all the time. I'm just offended that you don't trust this old lady."

"Oh, I know how thorough you are. I've been around for ten years! But..."


"Mr. Sohn wants us to follow procedure these days, so."

Hornclaw understands. Worryfixer smooths it over quickly but Hornclaw can feel Sohn's suspicions. Her sixty-fifth birthday passed a while ago, and regardless of what industry she's in, she's at an age where even a desk jockey tasked with mundane, trivial work might be pressured to retire. Of course Sohn would be nervous. In this line of work, if adaptability, judgment and physicality aren't in perfect harmony, it's a serious problem, one that threatens not only the agency's work but also the disease control specialist's own life. She can imagine Sohn's expression as he just waits for her to get clumsy or make a tiny mistake, and become more harm than good for the agency.

This isn't a situation where she can pull rank and say, Sohn, I was already doing this work when your own father was the very young head of this agency. I practically changed your diapers. If that worked, the agency would be no different from the many small, poorly run family businesses out there that fail to fire musty, old, useless employees because of history and nostalgia. Moreover, it would be insulting to be treated like a sack of old bones moldering in the back room. She always believed she would step away if Sohn ever hinted that he wanted to get rid of her, but for now they still call her Godmother out of respect for her status as a founding partner.

She's taken a monthly salary all this time because it's inconvenient to have to manage the money herself, but the actual sum she's earned and entrusted to the agency—supposing they haven't squandered it all at this point—should be sizable. If she wants to retire, all she has to do is cash in her stake. Considering where the market is right now, it probably won't be enough to purchase a building she could rent out, but she could set up a small fried-chicken-and-beer joint in a residential area, and as long as she doesn't expand the business too fast or become the victim of gentrification or get swindled and lose everything, she might be able to live the rest of her life in peace. She doesn't have greedy offspring who would meddle and drain the coffers, or any family at all to look after, so it would be plenty for her and Deadweight. Even though she isn't one to listen encouragingly to strangers' stories or make friends or joke with guests or soothe drunks, she should end up fine; being a cruise director isn't a requirement to succeed in a simple business like that.

No matter what your occupation is, once you're in your fifties you could be managing staff one day, then forced to retire the next. She's often seen executives use their retirement packages to set up a restaurant near their former employers, and these executives are lauded for embarking on a new chapter in their lives. But these days, with the recession, you're lucky if, after having found yourself in your youth—and even if you didn't actually find yourself, or even come to realize that you never had a self to begin with—you can prepare for your old age by opening a store or holding on to real estate. It's hard enough to live without incident through your twenties and thirties and forties, let alone old age. Since Hornclaw can cash in her assets anytime she wants to, hers would be a much more elegant retirement than most. No tiptoeing around one's children for pocket money or, even more pitifully, rotting irrelevantly away in a one-room rental somewhere.

On Sale
Mar 8, 2022
Page Count
288 pages