BOOK REVIEWS

Almond by Won-pyung Sohn

Written in a simple and crisp prose Almond is a slim novel that is primarily concerned with empathy and human connection. Yunjae, the narrator of this story, was born with underdeveloped amygdalae, which are two-almond shaped nuclei that process our emotional responses (prior this book I had no idea of what they were…). Because of this condition, alexithymia, he cannot recognise and or is unaware of feeling emotions (be it anger happiness or fear). Knowing that this will make him ‘odd’ in the eyes of society, and will inevitably make him the target of other people’s cruelty, Yunjae’s mother, alongside his grandmother, try to ‘coach’ him, so that he can at least feign certain emotions. Yunjae obliges, as he’s unbothered by his own lack of emotional responses, as he cares, in his own way, for his family. Once he’s sixteen Yunjae’s existence is irrevocably changed by two tragic events. Without his relatives Yunjae retreats in himself.
The arrival of Gon at his school complicates Yunjae’s life. Gon, who feels everything strongly, seems intent on punishing Yunjae, but Yunjae is seemingly unperturbed by Gon’s escalating bullying. After a series of not so friendly encounters outside of school, they find themselves growing accustomed to each other’s presence. When a girl catches the attention of Yunjae he finds himself wanting to ‘feel’.

While I overall enjoyed this novel, I did think that the first section was a bit too heavy on exposition. The violent incidents that leave Yunjae alone were kind of over-the-top, as was the finale. The girl, who appears very late in the story, felt like an unwelcome addition to the story as it suggested that ‘love’ is some magical cure. Still, I did like that seeing the ways in which Gon and Yunjae try to better each other.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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BOOK REVIEWS

Seven Years of Darkness by You-Jeong Jeong

Well, that was kind of ridiculous…
The title and summary of this novel gave me the impression that the story would be very much focused on Sowon, the son of mass murder, who seven years after his father’s crimes receives a mysterious package that forces him to confront his past. And in some ways, we are given that. Sadly, the narrative is less concerned with Sowon piecing together these past events than with simply retelling everything that happened in one go. The majority of this novel details the event that occurred seven years prior, without any insights from the present, but in a blow-by-blow type of account. See, the package Sowon receives contains a manuscript. The manuscript, penned by Sowon’s guardian, recounts what happened at Seryong Lake, giving us the perspective of most of the people involved. Sowon’s guardian, Ahn Sungwhan, had until that morning been sharing his living spaces with him. All of a sudden, he disappears, and Sowon receives this manuscript.
The story in the manuscript primarily follows Sungwhan, who was working as a security guard at Seryong Lake, a ‘first-tier’ reservoir located in a remote village; Dr. Oh Yongje, who owns the arboretum on the reservoir; and Sowon’s father, Hyonsu, a former baseball player who has just been hired as the new head of security at Seryong Dam (making him Sungwhan’s boss).
A tragic night leads to the lives of these men to become inexorably entwined. The inciting incident happens early on, and what follows are pages and pages of a kind of ‘cat and mouse’ game. The ‘baddie’ is revealed early on, and he seems to posses only vices. He’s a mastermind and brilliant gas-lighter who missed out on a career as a detective. The two others characters are far more hapless, and their attempts to escape the baddie’s clutches inevitably fail.
The novel jumps back to ‘seven years later’ briefly in the middle, and only for a few pages, and at the very end. The rest of the narrative treats these past events as if they are just occurring, so no new insights or even foreshadowing is offered. Two of the men are seemingly unsympathetic, prone to anger and brutish, even druknkunly, behaviour. The other one seems to become loyal to one of them for no reason whatsoever. The wives of Hyonsu and Yongje are portrayed as somewhat hysterical. Hyonsu’s wife in particular is made into a huge ‘nag’, and her character is restricted to that role.
The two children, Sowon, who was 11 at the time, and Yongje’s daughter are very much secondary to the mind-games between the adults. Yongje’s daughter dies early on and we never learn anything substantial about her, although the author does attempt to create a connection between her and Sowon.
The whole thing was cheesy. The characters were caricatures, the plot was surprisingly boring (just these three men try to outsmart each other), and I’m not sure why the novel was titled what it was. ‘Present’ Sowon doesn’t have to investigate anything, he simply reads this manuscript.
That Sungwhan was able to narrate the events from Yongje’s perspective wasn’t very convincing.
As thrillers go, this left me feeling kind of flat. Maybe readers who don’t expect there to be more of a conversation between past and present may find this to be a gripping read…

My rating: 2 ½ stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

The Disaster Tourist doesn’t tell a very memorable or engrossing story. If you’ve read the summary you know exactly what to expect from this book. We are introduced to Yona who is thirty-three and works as trip coordinator at Jungle, a travel company that specialises in organising disaster themed vacations. Yona is sexually harassed by her boss and seems like she would rather leave the company. She then agrees to go on a paid vacation in which she will have to determine whether Jungle should cancel this package. This vacation takes her to Mui, a fictional island not far from Vietnam. The disaster tourists that are travelling alongside Yona don’t seem all the impressed or shocked by Mui’s desert sinkhole. Yona then is left stranded to Mui and finds herself agreeing to take part in a morally questionable enterprise.
As a critique of disaster tourism this book doesn’t really offer anything truly compelling or thought-provoking. Most readers will be aware of the voyeuristic and exploitative nature of this brand of tourism and of the motivations of those who wish to participate in it (wanting to raise awareness, witness sites of devastation in order to understand them).
The author’s style does very little showing. Unlike with books like Temporary or Convenience Store Woman readers will never gain an insight into Yona’s job or her mind. She remains a surface character whose actions are either obscure or unbelievable. The tone of this book was also kind of a miss for me (definitely not as darkly funny or insightful as it wanted to be).
What could have been an irreverent look at tourism ended up being a forcibly surreal tale that wasn’t half as clever or inventive as it tried to be.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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