Selected as a 2021 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize honor book, Almond is the story of Soon Yunjae, who as child is diagnosed with alexithymia, or the inability to identify and express one’s feelings. His amygdalae—the almond shaped structures in the brain responsible for interpreting external stimuli as emotional responses— are, as he explains, “unusually small and the contact between the limbic system and the frontal lobe [doesn’t] function as smoothly as it should.”
In addition to his difficulties with emotions (expressing them or identifying them in others) Yunjae does not always know when to be afraid. He’s not so much brave as incognizant:
“Fear is an instinctive defense mechanism necessary for survival. Not knowing fear doesn’t mean that you’re brave; it means you’re stupid enough to stay standing on the road when a car is charging toward you.”
His mother tries to prepare him for all sorts of situations and interactions, with his grandmother’s help. Granny and Yunjae are more on “‘on the same wavelength;'” he is her “eigoo, my adorable little monster,” and he never gets bored with anything she says, “no matter how many times he hears her say it.”
The trio’s close-knit family life, however, ends abruptly on Yunjae’s sixteenth birthday, when Granny and Mom are both victims of a mass street stabbing on Christmas Eve. This is actually where the novel begins; the story up to this point is told in flashbacks.
Yunjae must now navigate the world alone. Although his mother is gone, his emotional education continues. He forms a friendship with his kind upstairs neighbor, and he feels the first stirrings of romantic interest for Dora, a fellow student.
But the emotional center of this novel is the relationship between Yunje and Gon, a new classmate whose deprived and traumatic past have wired him for violence and antagonism. Where Yunjae is impassive and taciturn, Gon is volatile and vituperative. Somehow the connection between the two boys transforms from that of a bully and his victim to a friendship stalked by dangers made real.
To delve further into the events of Almond would be to give too much away. It is sufficient to say that its characters experience change and growth, and are different from the persons to which we are first introduced. This is author Sohn Won-pyung‘s debut novel, and it is a gut punch. Readers sensitive to violence may want to proceed with caution, but it is not voyeuristic by any means. The translation by Sandy Joosun Lee is accessible and taut, and makes for fast reading (I finished the book in two days). Yet, it does not leave the reader with simple answers. As Yunjae says, “neither you nor I nor anyone can ever really know whether a story is happy or tragic.” We all nevertheless must live our way into our stories.
Written by Sohn Won-pyung
Translated from Korean by Sandy Joosun Lee
HarperVia, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2020
Originally published 2016, Changbi Publishers
Awards: Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction, 2016 (for Korean language edition); Global Literatures in Libraries Initiative Translated Young Adult Book Prize Honor Book, 2021
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Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. In recognition of her work, she was named a 2021 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker.” Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.