BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Almond by Won-pyung Sohn, translated by Sandy Joosun Lee [in Booklist]

Novels featuring neurodiverse protagonists are claiming more space on both adult and children’s shelves. The most common underlying message encourages kindness and empathy, despite obvious, sometimes impenetrable, differences. In what might be the first novel to feature a protagonist with alexithymia – an inability to identify and express one’s feelings, initially documented in medical journals in the 1970s – Korean screenwriter/director/novelist Won-pyung Sohn’s affecting debut arrives stateside, Anglophone-enabled by Sandy Joosun Lee, who began translating “purely out of my enjoyment.” Despite shocking violence – gruesome murders, butterfly dismemberment – the adjectives “pure” and “enjoyment” do, ironically, truly describe Yunjae’s story.

Raised by his grandmother and mother who worked diligently to guide him through everyday social interactions, Yunjae at 15 is effectively orphaned: his grandmother is dead, his mother comatose. A guardian-of-sorts who lives above the used bookstore the trio called home, appears to help navigate daily challenges, gently guiding Yunjae through the possibility of new relationships with the bully who’s convinced Yunjae usurped the most important moment of his life and the first girl whose attention Yunjae seeks.

As Yunjae risks communication and connection, the eponymous almond – the undeveloped amygdalae of his brain that controls emotions – takes seed, and (in accordance with new studies, Sohn adds in her author’s notes) gives Yunjae the courage to claim “an entirely different story. New and unknown.”

YA/Mature Readers: Winner of the prestigious Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction in her native Korea, Sohn presents a 15-year-old neurodiverse protagonist with much resonance.

Review: “Fiction,” Booklist, April 15, 2020

Readers: Adult

Published: 2020


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