Lorenza Punzo/ Staff reporter
Won-pyung Sohn’s debut novel Almond tells the life of Yunjae a 15 year old teenager who was born with a brain condition which makes it difficult for him to feel emotions. The name “almond” comes from the two almond-shape neurons in the brain. “For some reason, my almonds don’t seem to work well. They don’t really light up when they are stimulated,” Yunjae says “So I don’t know why people laugh or cry. Joy, sorrow, love, fear, all these things are vague ideas to me. The words ’emotion’ and ’empathy’ are just meaningless letters in print.”
Yunjae’s mom tries to teach him how to perform the emotions for him to have what is supposed to be an ordinary life.
After a tragedy on Christmas Eve, Yunjae meets Gon, a boy around his age who has had a difficult past. Gon is the opposite of Yunjae – he’s loud, disruptive, and always looking for a way to fight back, even though his bravery comes from a place of emotional pain.
The novel often strikes an open moral tone, mostly “don’t judge people too quickly”, especially in the strained relationship between the two boys. Throughout the novel, people call Yunjae a “geek” because he never shows emotions, and they say Gon is “scary” because he’s too expressive and in a bad way.
Yunjae wonders if Gon is similar to the man who was involved in the incident from Christmas. He also wonders, if he himself is like the attacker. These questions trouble him, so he allows Gon to get closer, explaining, “I wanted to understand the world a little better.
When Yunjae’s elderly neighbor the words, “honestly, I always doubted his diagnosis,” after Yunjae acquired some magical ability to feel emotions in a more conventional way. It seems completely redundant, like a ploy to put the reader at ease after Yunjae has been through so many tragedies. This undermines the message given in the rest of the book that Yunjae, although unable to identify emotions, was a fully developed human being, capable of making decisions and transforming into complex views of themselves. By casting doubt on his diagnosis of disability, Sohn deprived a person of a neurological disability, which happens too often in fiction as in real life.
Almond is a complex comingofage story featuring an alexithymic protagonist who finds himself in the unlikeliest of friendships, exploring the nature of love, fear, hate and the language of emotions.