A Way to Understand Love
- onDecember 3, 2019
- Vol.46 Winter 2019
- byTakami Nieda
- アーモンド (Almond)
Tr. Akiko Yajima Shodensha 2019267pp.
In Sohn Won-pyung’s Almond, a Korean coming-of-age novel, Yunjae, at six years old, witnesses a gang beating of a boy, yet he expresses none of the emotions that one might expect after encountering the gruesome scene. In fact, Yunjae has never laughed or shown any sign of emotion. Later, a visit to the doctor reveals Yunjae’s amygdalae, two almond-shaped neurons located in the temporal lobes of the brain, are smaller than average, and as such, Yunjae doesn't feel fear or anger, or read others’ emotions. Upon learning this diagnosis, his mother sets about teaching him a multitude of possible social scripts—to express envy when a classmate is showing off a new toy, or to mimic the facial expressions of the person he is talking to— so he will appear “normal” to others. His acerbic grandmother affectionately calls him an “adorable monster,” an example of an oxymoron that Yunjae comes to realize is commonplace in communication.
After years of estrangement, mother and grandmother reconcile and manage to cobble together a modest living, running a secondhand bookstore from out of their tiny apartment. The musty bookstore, which Yunjae describes as quiet yet filled with the voices of different experiences, quickly becomes a place where he identifies with the feeling of comfort. Then tragedy strikes. On Yunjae’s fifteenth birthday, the family is involved in a random knife attack, resulting in the death of his grandmother and the confinement of his mother to a hospital bed in an unresponsive state. With the help of his kindly upstairs neighbor Dr. Shim and the lessons his mother has embedded in his memory, Yunjae tries to make his way alone in the world.
Enter Gon, a transfer student to Yunjae’s high school class, who has bounced in and out of juvenile detention after tragically being separated from his mother during a trip to the amusement park. Unlike Yunjae, Gon is violent, loud, and angry at the world for depriving him of a family and a happy childhood. Yunjae is oddly drawn to Gon, mainly because he is so transparent and pure of heart that Yunjae can easily read his feelings. Through an unlikely friendship, the two boys find a way to understand something they thought was unlikeliest of all: love.
Almond is Sohn Won-pyung’s debut novel, which won the Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction in 2016. It has sold over 300,000 copies in South Korea and, in addition to this Japanese version, is slated for release in English, Spanish, Hebrew, and other languages. Although the novel has been tagged “socially-conscious YA” and has been praised for its criticism of the social media age and the loss of empathy, any didactic thrust it may have feels gentle and assuming, if not altogether imperceptible. Yes, Yunjae falls prey to the cruelty of his classmates for not being “normal,” but the author prefers not to focus on the boy’s victimization but on his effort to understand his classmates’ behaviors and how neurotypical interactions work.
While the author offers a brief explanation of alexithymia, the condition Yunjae is diagnosed with, she avoids cluttering the novel with medical jargon and research as a way to lend credibility to the protagonist’s depiction; in fact, she makes clear in the endnotes that the portrayal of Yunjae is based on both medical knowledge and her own imagination. Also refreshing is how Sohn does not pathologize Yunjae’s condition as abnormal or problematic. Actually, it is Yunjae who observes, with arresting clarity, the oddness of others’ behaviors. He notes, for example, how easily people throw up their hands at the challenge of fixing remote problems, and in turn, cower in fear at the thought of fixing those nearest to them. There is a devastating eloquence in how Yunjae is able to express the complexities of human behavior and interactions with such simplicity, and through Yunjae’s eyes, the reader is given a different way of looking at the world.
This is a coming-of-age novel that is highly affecting and is sure to delight readers of every age. In the prologue, Yunjae, as narrator, tantalizingly teases the reader by stating that he has no intention of revealing whether the story he is about to tell has a happy or tragic ending. Readers will be so enthralled with finding out that they won’t be able to keep from turning the pages.