I bought the Korean novel 아몬드 weeks ago because I was intrigued by the title and the bold cover illustration of a boy with unfeeling eyes. I love its clean cover. I am glad the publisher kept the cover plain instead of including words like “Bestseller”, “No.1” etc, despite the book being already on its 90th print (first print in Mar 2017).
I ended up reading the English translation first, with the same title “Almond”, translated by Sandy Joosun Lee.
This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster.
One of the monsters is me.
Yunjae was born with a brain condition called Alexithymia that makes it hard for him to feel emotions like fear or anger. He does not have friends—the two almond-shaped neurons located deep in his brain have seen to that—but his devoted mother and grandmother provide him with a safe and content life. Their little home above his mother’s used bookstore is decorated with colorful Post-it notes that remind him when to smile, when to say “thank you,” and when to laugh.
Then on Christmas Eve—Yunjae’s sixteenth birthday—everything changes. A shocking act of random violence shatters his world, leaving him alone and on his own. Struggling to cope with his loss, Yunjae retreats into silent isolation, until troubled teenager Gon arrives at his school, and they develop a surprising bond.
As Yunjae begins to open his life to new people—including a girl at school—something slowly changes inside him. And when Gon suddenly finds his life at risk, Yunjae will have the chance to step outside of every comfort zone he has created to perhaps become the hero he never thought he would be.
The novel explores what it means to be different and how the different ways people perceive and approach differences make a hell lot of difference. I love how most, if not all, our characters manage to subvert our expectations. It is as though throughout the whole novel, the author is calling us out on stereotypical mindsets and attitudes.
I love that how the word “monster” takes on an affectionate and endearing tone. Granny called Yunjae a monster during their first meeting, “the most adorable little monster”. The meeting of Yunjae and Gon is called “a meeting between monsters”. The word “monster” becomes normalised in the story.
The making of monsters is also very much a product of how people are treated and we see how the warmth that people around Yunjae treated him had made the difference in his life. Gon, unfortunately, did not quite get the same from his father. While we see that his father missed him a lot over the years, he had already started on the wrong foot with Gon by asking Yunjae to pose as his long-lost son in front of his ailing wife. By denying Gon the only chance to meet his mother, he essentially had denied Gon’s identity as his son.
While Yunjae may not be able to understand / feel emotions, he perceives his world in his own way – his views are simple, logical and often incisive. Through the short, sharp prose, the readers get to understand him and sees the world from his eyes. I find that Korean sentences have a tendency to be long so I’m keen to find out if the stylistic choice is on the part of the translator or also the writer.
I would have loved to see more scenes between Yunjae and Gon. The introduction of Dora turned the story into a more typical love story and for some reason, it didn’t quite appeal to me. It would have be interesting if the story went deeper into how Dora had affected the relationship between Yunjae and Gon but it was glossed over quite quickly.
I love the unlikely friendship that blossomed between the two special boys. It is a good reminder that friendship is not about finding people similar to you, and often, we are all just waiting for someone to reach out to us, to accept our uniqueness and that will make all the difference.
Definitely a book that will remain on my mind for a while. Can’t wait to delve into the Korean original.