Book Review

Professor Q is typical, in many ways, of the “modern protagonist”: so unfulfilled at work that he spends much of his time dissociating and increasingly unable to find common ground with his wife of ten years, he cannot stop seeing signs that the city he calls home is moving on without him. He’s a professor who can’t get tenure, an immigrant who dreams about his youth but can’t trust anyone enough to share the whole story. The novel follows the arc of his illicit love affair with a much younger, strikingly beautiful woman.

But this is where any sense of normalcy quickly starts to crumble in Owlish, the fascinating second novel by Dorothy Tse. Even though it’s given away on the back cover, the big reveal is shocking: the object of Professor Q’s considerable affection is a life-sized ballerina doll. Readers are frequently made to wonder how “real” Aliss is, but it’s clear that the professor isn’t wasting any time on semantics—he has been romantically and sexually drawn to dolls for many years, and we get detailed descriptions of previous encounters with a few favorites from his secret collection. The novel backs up a few months, retracing Professor Q’s acquisition of Aliss. Spurred on by the briefest glimpse of “the red lips of the foreigner women” on a local island, he stumbles into a series of bizarre, life-changing situations (like an ominous auction staged by a clown and a magician) without any hint of forethought—unlike his wife Maria, who thrives in her government job and plans everything meticulously, including her emotional responses.

Tse brings us right into the mess that unfolds as Professor Q races all over the city of Nevers in increasingly desperate attempts to satisfy long-repressed desires. Owlish, a close friend, keeps making matters worse by advising Professor Q to take big steps like moving into a “love nest” with Aliss. Since Professor Q can’t take Aliss home, he finds an empty church on an abandoned island and turns it into a kind of shrine, defying the giant Jesus hanging there. Reflecting Professor Q’s inner chaos, Nevers looks and feels different every time he leaves his apartment. Tse moves so fluidly between recent and distant past, while marking each passing season with evocative descriptions like “Lurid yellow mushrooms sprouted from bus seats,” that the reader is allowed to experience fairy-tale timelessness while still enjoying the distinct beats of conventional plot. This is one of those rare novels that can move back and forth in time, dipping in and out of backstory, without ever sacrificing momentum.

The professor’s rapid disintegration plays out in the foreground of a murkier but equally horrifying shift toward authoritarianism. In its history, geography, and explosive political situation, Nevers is strikingly similar to Hong Kong—an observation that might seem forced were it not for the afterword in which Tse, who lives and teaches there, makes the connection explicit: “The political situation in Hong Kong has been changing by the day and this story has been in flux with it, as if the city itself were deciding the destiny of Owlish and Aliss.” In their own way, each character is made to learn how to see the “shadow zones” surrounding Nevers, the places where past and future have to hide because the totalitarian Vanguard Republic has begun cracking down on every effort to protect them. Professor Q spends most of the novel completely oblivious to any of this, even though his own students are disappearing from class. But even before he’s inevitably forced to reckon with “all the useless garbage” that doesn’t directly pertain to his nights with Aliss, readers are constantly reminded by student protests, vandalized statues, and mysterious disappearances that they ought to be looking for shadows of the real in all these “dreamland encounters,” as the narrator calls them. When the university president’s library portrait is replaced with a crude artwork, the whole government mobilizes to figure out who did it. Questioned like Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Professor Q demonstrates the same blend of profound terror and totally flat self-presentation. (He walks free, but his run-ins with these authorities are only beginning.) Just as Maria works to reconcile classified government maps with the observations she makes of Nevers’s fragile ecology while out on lonely boat rides, Tse masterfully superimposes the political onto the personal and vice versa, back and forth, until it’s almost impossible to know where true danger lies.

We do know there’s danger in intimacy. Tse often drops us at the porous border between childhood fixation and adult sexuality, then does whatever she can to intensify the discomfort. To give one of the tamer examples, it’s revealed that when he received one of his earlier dolls Professor Q “pulled the lacy tutu down over her long, slender legs and swabbed her with a baby wipe, cleaning away accumulated dust to reveal the lovely pink of her PVC skin.” But nothing is here for shock factor alone. This novel resists all easy conclusions about the morality of these atypical forms of physical intimacy while taking care to show how their enactment affects Maria and even Aliss, not to mention the professor’s prospects in life and at work.

Many novels feature non-human characters who excel at being human (two recent examples would be Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun). Owlish borrows from this tradition but ultimately isn’t about an AI that threatens to exceed human capability. Aliss is still very much a doll and the power dynamic is clearly in favor of Professor Q, despite his general impotence. But Tse wants us to wonder: when he dresses her up, reads philosophy books to her, and even brings her to bed, what’s going on inside Aliss? Multiple parallels are drawn between dolls and corpses, between Aliss’s plight and that of the newly oppressed. At just over two hundred pages, there’s a lot going on in this book, but Tse’s voice—clear, direct, and often quite funny—holds it together. As with any dark fairy tale, reading Owlish can be viscerally uncomfortable. Still, it’s a true page-turner and has plenty to teach us about the “dialectic between dreaming and waking,” the in-between space where the actual work gets done. As Tse puts it: “The past flashes up again and, in that instant, in that brief present-moment mirage, you feel yourself getting closer to the call—you’ve forgotten it but it’s there, whispered, persistent, almost coming back.”

About the Reviewer

Patrick Carey earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University in August 2023. Formerly an Associate Editor at Colorado Review, he lives in Fort Collins and is working on his first novel.