As many of us learned in childhood, fables are simply short tales meant to teach moral lessons, often with animals or inanimate objects as characters. Dorothy Tse's entrancing and otherworldly debut novel "Owlish" is a subversive, contemporary fable for adults.

She takes the familiar subgenre of the campus novel — complete with a middle-aged literature professor/protagonist full of "self-recriminations over how he had ended up reduced to this, a hack teacher in a debased, cultureless little city" — and infuses it with new life by way of surreal touches.

Tse sets her story in Nevers, a semi-imaginary version of contemporary Hong Kong, "built up by the kingdom of Valeria and ruled by her for over a hundred years," a place "where skyscrapers thrust upwards like lethal weapons." Like the formerly colonial Nevers, the main character, Professor Q feels past his prime. Rarely allowing himself a moment of passion, he goes through the motions of teaching classes and sitting in meetings. Yet "in his heart of hearts, he felt it was not really him participating," but "rather a suit-wearing, tie-sporting, flesh-and-blood-mannequin version of himself."

Even though his wife Maria is perfect, with a high-ranking civil servant job, the two of them fail to truly connect.

The one pastime that makes Q feel alive is collecting antique dolls. It's little wonder, then, that he falls for Aliss, a music-box ballerina come to life whose body is "softer than that of any 'real' woman he had ever encountered." A kind of erotically desirable Pinocchio at first, unformed and seeming to fill a void in Professor Q's life, Aliss develops a mind of her own, and Professor Q, oblivious to the unrest in the city around him, begins to take increasingly absurd risks.

The title character, his odd friend Owlish, is not an owl exactly, but a being with "a pair of long, slender, birdlike eyes, a mouth that was widening into a grin, and a pile of messy hair" who eggs on the Professor in his romantic misadventures.

Natascha Bruce, who translated the novel from the Chinese, captures Tse's subtle details and off-kilter humor, as when Q thinks of a sweater from Maria: "It had called to mind a carefully arranged, cellophane-wrapped, odourless dog turd."

As engrossing as a dream, the novel uses the literal and metaphorical associations of waking and sleeping to explore the efficacy of political awareness. In her afterword, Tse writes of how, during the 2014 Occupy Movement, protesters chanted to get Hong Kong to "wake up" and, in 2019, 2 million people took to the streets.

Was that, she wonders, "because they had woken up?" even though "more and more often you hear that protesters are 'dreaming.'" A protest fable that reveals many human truths, Tse's "Owlish" poses questions of desire and freedom under a punishing regime. The story lingers like a vivid dream bleeding into conscious life.

Kathleen Rooney's fourth novel, "From Dust to Stardust," will be published this fall.


By: Dorothy Tse.

Publisher: Graywolf Press, 224 pages, $16.