Book Review: ‘Owlish,’ by Dorothy Tse

OWLISH, by Dorothy Tse. Translated by Natascha Bruce.

Dorothy Tse’s “Owlish” is set in the fictional Nevers, a stand-in for Hong Kong, a city of shadows whose slick, “shimmering, mirrored facades” hide layers of sinister underworld. The book is at once a darkly fantastical parable about totalitarianism, a portrait of a place in metamorphosis and a wild romp about Professor Q, a “hack teacher in a debased, cultureless little city” who cheats on his wife, Maria — a perfect, bloodless government official — in an all-consuming affair with a full-size music-box doll.

Tse, a winner of the Hong Kong Book Prize for her short stories, has said that she studied journalism but rebelled against a writing style with “too many assumptions about reality.” This novel explores, as one character puts it, the city’s “subconscious, or maybe its dream.” It is the literary equivalent of a house of mirrors, refracting and distorting shards of Hong Kong’s recent past, especially the suppression of the 2019 protests.

In “Owlish,” Tse’s second book to be translated into English, after the story collection “Snow and Shadow,” she depicts a city sliding into authoritarianism aided by the political apathy of the population. “No such thing as beautiful or unbeautiful here,” an elderly stranger warns Professor Q early on. “You see what you want to see.” The protagonist is so busy frolicking naked with his ballerina doll that he doesn’t realize his students have stopped attending class, the police are raiding their dormitories and election candidates are being disqualified without reason.

Meanwhile, Maria serves as the bland, bureaucratizing face of state power, willfully blind in her “self-contained, self-satisfied little world.” She says nothing about her colleagues’ disappearance even though her “department had transformed into a foreign land overnight.” When she receives secret plans for transforming the city, she deletes the email. Her only emotion is “relief,” and longing for “a button to delete the map from her own memory.”

The name Nevers is a nod to the French internment camp where the Jewish writer Walter Benjamin was detained during World War II. China is “Ksana,” the Buddhist term for “the smallest possible moment,” Tse writes in an afterword, “between dreaming and waking,” where “the past suddenly opens wide to the present.”

By definition, such an instant cannot last. Predictably, Professor Q’s dreamy affair is overtaken by a nightmare reality. He is co-opted by the authorities, who magnanimously offer him the “chance to destroy those dreams of yours, along with any incriminating evidence of them.” His love nest is transformed into an interrogation center for protesters, as “people dream of the sound of flesh torn from bone.” His love doll washes up on a riverbank, blood oozing from her mannequin body. The future is embodied in one recurring motif, a small boy trapped behind the bars of iron security doors, utterly mute.

For such a wildly inventive read, “Owlish” veers disorientingly close to reality. One passage, written in the second person, describes an indeterminate “you” eating a slice of cake topped with whipped cream when outside, riot police wearing gas masks and carrying truncheons beat protesters. When I read it, I gasped. Back in 2019, I had been drinking wine in a shopping mall as the police tear-gassed protesters outside.

Tse’s mordant humor and descriptive powers lift the narrative from unmitigated gloom. Nevers from above is “city skyscrapers transformed into innocent children’s building blocks”; Professor Q spends his days “dumping dry, insipid words into research-paper-shaped molds.” Natascha Bruce’s sure-footed translation helps ground readers in this shadowy, in-between world peopled by sinister magicians, fellating baby dolls and strip-teasing puppets.

“Owlish” is the latest in a tradition of surreal, genre-bending novels by Hong Kong writers, too few of which are translated into English. Tse draws heavily on the legacy of Hong Kong’s chief chronicler, the poet and fiction writer Xi Xi, who died in December. In 1986, Xi Xi coined the famous description of Hong Kong as a “floating city,” suspended between two worlds. “Mirrors in the floating city only reflect the back view of things,” she wrote, “the rear side of reality.”

Through the dark rearview mirror of Tse’s fiction, Hong Kong’s past collides with its future. The novel’s clearest moment of despair arrives in the words of an unnamed prisoner kneeling in a detention center with his hands on his head: “You should have seen this coming.”

Louisa Lim is the author of “Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong.” She is a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Melbourne.

OWLISH | By Dorothy Tse | Translated by Natascha Bruce | 217 pp. | Graywolf Press | Paperback, $16

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