Owlish by Dorothy Tse

Dorothy Tse's Owlish is a surreal fairytale that tackles the political reality of Hong Kong through a shifting dreamspace

Book Review by Marguerite Carson | 21 Feb 2023
  • Owlish by Dorothy Tse
Book title: Owlish
Author: Dorothy Tse, trans. Natascha Bruce

Dorothy Tse’s debut novel Owlish employs a surreal fairytale structure as a vehicle to explore the boundaries of individual agency and the slow creep of bureaucratic control. Set in a city that emerges as Hong Kong, the story wends its way through various saturated spaces filled with different tempos and layers, and into various intersecting snapshots of vast fragmentary space.

Owlish bears witness to a dream state, to a place where language doesn’t always work quite how it should, where the boundaries of deviance, obedience, and desire blur. Caught within these shades of reality, the automata whirs. A cranking becomes faintly audible. Tse weaves a kind of visceral, bodily syntax full of openings and shrouded things; tantalising always, whether for us or for our hero.

The political reality of Hong Kong increasingly seeps into the text and settles there, weighing like a paperweight on a previously unpinned setting. Encounters are introduced that fail to make an impression on our characters, instead glancing blows that slide off forgotten. Overhanging Owlish continuously is the question of reality, of dream reality, of felt reality. Tse leads us to a place where things that happen are too much to believe and things that don’t are felt deeply. Where control means the perfectly crafted meaninglessness that says nothing, and resistance is a garbled nonsense holding everything.

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