Won-Pyung Sohn was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1979. She studied Social Sciences and Philosophy at Sogang University, and Film Directing at the Korean Academy of Film Arts. Her creations, both literary and cinematographic, are distinguished for oscillating between fantasy and reality, but in her literary debut, Almond, the author left fiction aside to tell the daily life of a boy through his illness; and from this story she makes the reader reflect on what it means to grow up.
Etymologically, alexithymia translates as the absence of words to express emotions, so this disorder is associated more with a communicative inability than with a lack of emotions per se. However, people tend to label people with alexithymia as incapable of feeling, which leads us to wonder if only that which can be expressed is real. It is around this fact that the question embodied on the cover of Won-Pyung Sohn’s work takes on the same meaning as the theory about whether trees falling in the forest make noise when there is no one to hear them fall: “how do people who cannot feel anything cry?”
Cover of Almond, Editorial Planeta, 2020
Photo by Luisa Quintero
Almond is the story of Yunjae, who is sixteen years old, but has known since he was six that he is not like everyone else. At that age, when he was still too young to even understand things properly, he witnessed for the first time a tragedy to which he did not react as expected. His diagnosis of alexithymia was soon confirmed after that first event, and from then on, his grandmother nicknamed him “little monster”, taking the situation a little more lightly, although for his mother the concern about whether Yunjae could adapt to the world with his condition was not a joke at all.
Yunjae became extraordinary, but his power could bring him more problems than solutions, so his mother decided to raise him so that he could pretend to be “normal” and go unnoticed in the eyes of others. Also, in an act of faith or perhaps as her only hope, Yunjae’s mother included almonds in her son’s three daily meals, so that they would help the almonds in his head (brain tonsils) to grow. However, as if life was trying to test Yunjae’s condition, the tragedy he witnessed at the age of six would be just the beginning of many; and on Christmas, the very same day as his birthday, he was left alone after losing his mother and grandmother before his eyes.
While Yunjae’s mother did not die that day, the event left her in a coma, preventing her from taking care of her son and her beloved used bookstore. Therefore, Yunjae decided to take care of his mother and her books as best he could as a teenager, without many financial resources and without any social skills to help him relate to others as a salesman. Luckily, Yunjae was not as lonely as he thought. His mother had left him a friend who would take care of him, and fate would put other people in his life who would help him grow, change and sometimes just accept himself.
In Yunjae’s present, Dr. Shim, the owner of the neighboring bakery and his mother’s friend, is the one who listens to him and advises him as his family did before. Through their conversations, Yunjae learns to question himself about what is happening to him and how he experiences it. The most important of these leads him to discover that even someone with his condition can fall in love. He meets love when he meets Dora, a girl from his school who is obsessed with athletics. Yunjae doesn’t know how or why being around Dora makes him feel like a rock is squeezing his chest. But, just like any other teenager who is discovering love, Yunjae loves being by his crush’s side. Even if nerves lead him to act awkwardly, and even if she doesn’t know what he feels when he sees her.
Meanwhile, he meets Professor Yoon at the sanatorium where his mother is staying, as the professor’s wife is also an inpatient there. Although at the beginning this seems to be a character who does not contribute much to Yunjae, towards the end of the book we realize that through the mistakes that Professor Yoon makes with his son, Yunjae understands that, just as he is insensitive to good feelings, he is also insensitive to human evil; and that is not always bad. Even less so when behind that evil is someone who needs help like Goni, Professor Yoon’s son.
Goni is one of those kids they call “lost cases”. He has a bad relationship with his father, he does not know how to control his aggressiveness and, as different as Yunjae, he does not know how to relate to others. Perhaps this last point is what leads them to strike up a friendship, even when Goni hit and treated Yunjae badly from the first time they met. But to Yunjae, Goni is a good boy, even if he does bad things. He is so sure of that that he even goes as far as to risk his life to defend him; because as P.J Nolan said “there is no one who can’t be saved. There are only people who stop trying” (Sohn, 2017, p. 122), and Yunjae feels that Goni is like Nolan, although sometimes he also feels that he himself is like Nolan.
In parallel, for us as readers, Goni being a good guy even if he does bad things is the perfect analogy that explains why Yunjae feels emotions even if he cannot express them, as one fact does not invalidate the existence of the other. However, both Yunjae and Goni are characters who suffer from being pigeonholed into the mold that society has placed upon them just because they are atypical individuals. The problem, both in this fiction and in reality, is that the social gaze is often negative and caused by ignorance, which makes it impossible for us to see that the statements we make about someone are not always the absolute and immovable truth that will have to define them forever. That is the true message behind Almond.
Transformation in human beings is as natural as life itself, just like having difficulties and not being perfect. Almond, through its characters both normal and extraordinary, makes us understand that growing up, to a greater or lesser extent, means being Yunjae, hastily qualified as incapable of doing something just because he has a different way of doing it than the rest. It also means being Goni, perpetually sentenced for his mistakes, with no chance to prove that he is more than the stones in his path. In the same way, we will all be Professor Yoon and make mistakes in judging someone, even to the point of hurting them irreparably. But even so, growing up will allow us to be Dora to someone and awaken a good feeling for the first time; to become a refuge for another, as Dr. Shim was; and to form a family that signifies the discovery of beauty, as Yunjae’s family was for her grandmother.
Reading and reviewing Almond is an exercise in reflection on what life itself is and how, as we grow up, the perspective we have on it and on ourselves is transformed. We tend to think that there is a certain essence that defines us as people, which is made up of both our virtues and our defects, but we tend to forget that this essence and our reality can be transformed in an instant. Sometimes because we want it to, and other times just because destiny has decided it. Almond reminds us of the agility with which life mutates, in one second you can be celebrating your birthday with your loved ones, and the next you can be visiting them in the cemetery or in a sanatorium. And, just like life, everything within us mutates, making us never as bad or as good as those who judge us would have us believe.
This brief introduction to the literary universe of Almond, beyond being a review, intends to be an invitation to read the complete book by the hand of its author. Although in this text we have tried to capture those reflections that the book left in this reader, the magic of Almond lies in the fact that its reading can lead to a different conclusion for everyone. That makes it one of those books’ worth reading, because the reader’s interpretation will always be where the importance of literature comes to life.
 Structure located in the temporal lobe of mammals formed by different nuclei and traditionally related to the emotional system of the brain.
 Author and fictional criminal wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of his stepdaughter (a crime he did not commit).
Sohn, W. (2017). Almond (S. Yoon, Transl.). Editorial Temas de Hoy. (Original work published in 2017).
Written by: Luisa Quintero
Reviewed by: Andrea Ramírez