Book Review: “Almond” by Won-Pyung Sohn

Book Review: Almond by Won-Pyung Sohn

Fiona Wilson, Contributor

Imagine you’ve never felt heartbreak: the pain of losing a loved one, the hurt of betrayal from a loyal friend. You don’t get angry and lash out, consciously at least. You don’t succumb to emotions. You don’t cry. Then, imagine you’ve never felt love: all that is unsaid, in a tight hug or a kind gesture. It’s hard to imagine living without feeling, yet in Almond, that is the protagonist, Yunjae’s, reality. The young Korean boy was born with a rare brain condition, alexithymia, that makes it difficult to feel emotions. This is said to be due to a lack of growth of the amygdala in the brain, which Yunjae’s mother refers to as his “almonds.” His mother and grandmother raised him, committed to attaining an “ordinary” life for Yunjae, despite his out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Their love for the boy is evident as they try to train Yunjae to recognize emotions as well as body language, phrases, or actions that hold deeper, sentimental feelings. However, their efforts are shockingly, and devastatingly extinguished when tragedy strikes, leaving Yunjae to his own devices without the women who were his guides and protectors. Soon after, Yunjae meets several people who help and harm him through this struggle, most importantly Gon, a troubled and explosive boy, who, likewise, experienced a turbulent and unique childhood. Gon, tormented by pain, loss, and abandonment, longs to be like Yunjae, apathetic and reserved. Meanwhile, Yunjae seeks to understand what he has missed out on all his life, especially through his friendship with Gon, an intensely emotional boy. 

Sohn beautifully illustrates Yunjae’s youth. Despite the detached narration, the reader can’t help but feel all of the emotions Yunjae is unable to through her moving descriptions and storytelling. The beginning of the book, though filled with violence and difficult themes, maintains a calm, comforting mood as Yunjae observes situations, posing convoluted life questions, but hardly ever acting in response. Though towards the end, a few plot elements were introduced that could have been exchanged for more development on Yunjae’s relationships, Almond was an overall lovely read. Despite the novel being a translation from the Korean original, Sohn’s tenderness, humor, and potency are preserved, making the book worthy of an extensive audience and considerable praise.