review: Almond

title: Almond
author: Won Pyung Sohn
translator: Sandy Joosun Lee
date: HarperVia/HarperCollins; 2020

This is one of the very few translated books that I’ve reviewed, perhaps because there just aren’t that many MG & YA books in translation. In her notes at the back of the book, translator Sandy Joosun Lee tells us about how rare it is for Korean literature to be published in English, ever rarer for a debut novel. Winning the Changhi Prize for Young Adult Fiction probably brought initial attention to the book, but the sheer brilliance of the language used in telling such an intense story would make most publishers want to bring the book to a new audience. The language; the words that are chosen and the way they tell this story makes the work translators do to essentially create a companion novel that is based up the ideas expressed by the original author. Words aren’t translated; ideas are. Sohn describes her work in the following way.

  1. Portraying the series of horrific events in Yunjae’s uniquely detached voice was a challenge though, especially when lining up his next to those of the other characters who are full of emotion and life, including Gon. I needed to make conscious word choices that Yunjae and Gon would use so they could equally come alive in their own unique ways based on the context and emotional distance set from the original. (p. 257-8)

How far in do we usually go before we know we’re reading a rare gem? I know there are some award committees that let readers stop at 50 pages. I think Oprah decides in 50 pages. With Almond, it was page 9 for me. It may spoil things to give the exact quote, just know it was the first paragraph. I felt the punch and this because I book I didn’t want to put down.

Yunjae lives in Korea and has been diagnosed with alexithymia, “an inability to express, describe, or distinguish among one’s emotions”. In the tex, Yunjae describes that the disorder occurred because “the almonds inside my head, the amygdalae, were unusually small and the contact between the limbic system and the frontal lobe didn’t function as smoothly as it should.” (p.21)

The most unthinkable thing happens: Yunjae’s mother and grandmother – his whole world – are attacked before in eyes while they’re out celebrating his sixteenth birthday. The story unfolds from there.

After taking the time to have her son diagnosed, his mother takes the time to understand his disorder and then developed ways to teach him how to navigate the world so that he wouldn’t be seen as a cold hearted monster because of his inability to provide emotional responses. She fed him almonds, hoping that would cause his amygdala to grow. Yunjae becomes friends with Gon, a classmate who preys upon other’s emotions, particularly their fear, so that he can dominate situations. He was a bully. These two diametrically opposed characters are used to explore nature and nurture—what makes us the way we are?

Can we change?

In that exploration comes the role of schools, parents and society at large. The book is only 248 pages long; a reader’s perception of these roles will depend upon what they bring to the reading.

Elements from Korean culture certainly enhanced the novel. I was intrigued to see so many people enter the job market by starting their own little business, reminding me of the essence of capitalism and the free market system.

In her notes, author Won Pyung Sohn writes

Children are born every day. They all deserve blessings and to have every possibility open to them. But some of them will grow up to be social outcasts, some will rule and command but with twisted minds. Some, although very few, will succeed against all odds and grow into people who touch hearts. (p. 254)

As will their stories.