Nikhat Parveen, New Delhi
“Human Beings are a product of their Education, after all”
‘Almond’ is a young adult fiction masterpiece written by Won Pyung-sohn which was originally published in 2017, and was distributed by Changbi Publishers. In 2020, it was published in English by HarperVa. ‘Almond’ was translated into English by Sandy Joosun Lee.
In this novel, author Won Pyung-sohn tells an endearing story of a Korean teenager’s struggles with a rare Emotional Impairment. Soon Yun-jae, a highly intelligent teenage boy who lives with his mother and grandmother in the city of Seoul, suffers from “Alexithymia,” a defect believed to be rooted in the Amygdala – the almost almond shaped region of the brain. It is the inability to identify and describe emotions experienced by oneself or others. This renders him incapable of expressing or even identifying his emotions. Yun-jae’s antagonist, nicknamed Gon, has returned to his home after thirteen years following a mysterious disappearance that saw him shunted among various foster homes and finally to a youth shelter. In that long exile, he becomes a hardened juvenile delinquent, bitter towards the father he believes abandoned him and acting out at every opportunity.
Yun-jae becomes the victim of an act of random violence that shatters his life and thrusts him into an unwanted state of independence. Gon, sensing his classmate’s vulnerability, signals him out for special torments. The radical imbalance between Gon’s physical and emotional abuse and Yun-jae’s inability to respond in any meaningful way fuels the novel’s escalating tension and justifies Yun-jae’s blunt description of his story as one about a ‘monster meeting another monster.’
But that imbalance subtly shifts as the two damaged boys inch towards something that looks like friendship and become more complicated when a young girl named Dora enters the picture.
In Won Pyung-sohn’s debut novel, director and screenwriter Sohn makes the bold decision to choose an emotionally constricted first person narrator, but the risk pays off.
“Luck plays a huge part in all the Unfairness of the World. Even more than you’d expect”
The book is brilliantly depicted. It was the first time that I read about a mental disorder called Alexithymia and I found myself deeply invested in the story. This novel focuses on Yun-jae’s journey on self discovery and growth . You will have a lot of emotions by rooting for Yun-jae while reading this novel. The novel also describes how society reacts to the horrific events, judging and whispering rather than helping the ones in need. ‘Almond’ is written with rich vocabulary which will keep you engaged effortlessly all the time.
Reading ‘Almond’ is like growing up together with Yun-jae. The way Yun-jae describes his surroundings expression without telling their emotions explicitly, and how he tries to explain his feelings, building an understanding about his condition to us gradually. Hands down to the English translation of this book. The words that contained in the story had big roles in this novel. Considering Yun-jae had alexithymia, the narration that came from his point of view has a lot of emotions.
“Books took me to places I could never go otherwise. They shared the confessions of people I’d never met and lives I’d never witnessed. The emotions I could never feel, and the events I hadn’t experienced could all be found in those volumes.”
This book addresses important themes of bullying, family, friendship, grief, and prejudice. The dialogues are also witty and entertaining .
It’s difficult to review a book that has been translated from Korean, as there is always going to be so much that’s left out or unexpressed. Author Sohn touches well across both happiness and sadness, joy, and the complexities of life. There are also some beautiful descriptions about books, which were a delight to read:
“But Books are quiet. They remain dead silent until somebody flips open a page. Only then do they spill out their stories, calmly and thoroughly, just enough at a time for me to handle.”
The book is divided into 75 chapters which makes the novel stand out for the readers. All in all, there’s something about Korean literature as a whole that’s also prominent about this novel, that holds this distinct brand of sadness and anger.
This is a refreshing step away from Western literature. I really recommend it because it’s not a story we see everyday, nor is it a perspective stylistically told this way. I randomly came across this book while watching IN THE SOOP, SEASON 1, where BTS members, RM and Suga, were seen reading this book. The interest in this story lies between the relationships of the characters, and how they interact with each other.
Know the Author
Won Pyung-sohn is a Korean writer, screenwriter and film director who had her literary debut with ‘Almond’ in 2017. She also won two literary awards for ‘Almond’ and for ‘Counterattack of the Thirty.’ She also won Changbi Prize in the Young Adult Fiction genre for ‘Almond.’
“I won’t tell you whether it has a happy ending or a tragic ending…neither you nor I, anyone can ever really know whether a story is happy or tragic.”
– Won Pyung-sohn