Thursday, May 21, 2020

Almond by Won-Pyung Sohn

The amygdalae are two almond-shaped nodes in the brain responsible for the processing of emotion, most notably fear. ALMOND is a book about a young Korean boy with underdeveloped amygdalae, leading to a condition called "alexithymia," which is a brain disorder in which a person can't really identify with or even experience emotions in a normal way (their own or others). As a psychology major, we talked briefly about alexithymia but never in any concrete detail. I was surprised by how similarly it was portrayed to someone who might have autism or a nonverbal learning disability, as Sohn's struggle with empathy is something that I have seen in people with the two aforementioned conditions, but the difference is that he doesn't really feel anything either-- at all. Which makes me wonder if maybe the reason I didn't learn more about alexithymia when I was in college 10+ years ago was because there simply wasn't that much literature about the disorder in the first place.

Obviously, as a psychology major, I was super-psyched (ha!) to receive a copy of this book from the publisher. It's also a translated work from Korea, which makes it an excellent choice for celebrating AAPI heritage month. Interestingly, I heard another reviewer saying that in Korea it's marketed to a young adult audience, but in the United States, it's been rebranded as an adult title. I can see why. This book is very dark. The teenage character sees his mother and grandmother bludgeoned and stabbed before him, killing his grandmother and putting his mother into the hospital. After their respective death and incapacitation, he is put into the care of a well-meaning neighbor, who lets him continue to live alone and run his mother's bookstore while he goes to school and tries to have some semblance of a normal life.

Given that the hero, Yunjae, has so much difficulty with empathy and relating to others, he often attracts negative attention. One day, this attention comes from a juvenile delinquent named Gon, who has a whole bunch of his own problems, one of which brings him into the sphere of Yunjae in the first place. As you learn more about them, their bond becomes one of contrasts: Yunjae is a "good boy" who feels nothing at all; Gon is a "bad boy" who feels far too much. Yunjae has no empathy and could do terrible things without remorse but doesn't. Gon, on the other hand, lashes out at everyone, even as it tears him up inside. It becomes a curious and fascinating study about societal norms and morality-- especially in the last act of the book, when Yunjae makes another friend named Dora.

ALMOND is such a stark and powerful book, written in spare prose and with surprising depth of emotion. I loved the neurodivergent hero and his quest to just try to live his life, despite his disability. I liked the subtleties of his development, and how the people around him helped him relate to himself and those around him in various ways (whether deliberately or inadvertently). I still feel like this could (and should) be read and enjoyed by a young adult audience, but again, it does have some dark content, like the aforementioned crime scene, and a scene involving graphic animal cruelty (a butterfly) that was quite hard to read and made me pretty sad.

I would say that this would appeal to people who liked WONDER and CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, as it has the same elements of a boy developing agency and independence on his journey to life despite being picked on for something he can't control.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!  

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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