It’s been like six months since my last review, but hey friends! I’ve been wanting to review this one for months, so better late than never! I’m hoping I can get back to doing at least one or two reviews a month to spread more book love.
Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, was one of my favorite reads this year. This YA fiction novel is told from the perspective of Darius Kellner, an Iranian-American teen who travels to Iran to visit his mom’s side of the family after his mom learns that his grandfather won’t be long for this world. The story offers a compassionate and nuanced take on the struggle to find one’s identity when you don’t quite fit into anyone’s perfect ideals.
While Darius is in Iran, he quickly befriends Sohrab, the boy who lives next door to Darius’s grandparents. The two have a lot in common: a love for soccer, a cast of bullies who plague them, and a shared loneliness that bridges their cultural gaps. Their friendship is a sweet and powerful force, one that I loved watching grow, even as the two boys argue, or push each other away.
Darius’s self-deprecating, witty humor and his painfully relatable struggles swept me into the story. Darius has clinical depression, one of the only things he claims to have in common with his father. While depression definitely impacts Darius and some of the choices he makes in the story, it by no means defines him. I was really impressed by Khorram’s delicate hand in writing about Darius’s depression.
While Khorram shows how depression impacts Darius’s perception of himself and others, he also shows how harmful peoples’ incorrect beliefs about depression can make it difficult for people with mental health issues to get the help they need. Darius’s Iranian grandfather, for example, doesn’t understand why Darius needs to take medication for depression, and tells Darius that he should just focus on the positive. I hadn’t even consciously considered how people have such different perceptions of mental health conditions in other cultures, and I really appreciate how Khorram weaves that into the story.
What really makes this book shine for me is the glimpse of Persian culture that Darius offers the reader. He candidly reflects on his fraught relationship with Persian and American culture throughout the entire novel: he never feels quite American enough to fit in with his peers at school, and doesn’t feel Persian enough to fit in with his family in Iran. Unlike his little sister Laleh, Darius wasn’t raised to speak fluent Farsi, and so he and his dad feel a little bit like guests in the world that Laleh and his mother seem to navigate effortlessly.
The lush descriptions of Iran—its food, its architecture, its people—are one of the strongest points in this book, written seamlessly into Darius’s own new experiences. The descriptions of the food alone… I had no idea that Iran is famously known for its desserts, or that making tea can be such an involved, painstaking process.
(By the way, Darius is such a nerd about tea, something you learn on the very first page, and I love that about him. He’s a huge nerd, period. He refers to The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek on multiple occasions. But, I digress…)
I felt like I was walking in Darius’s shoes as he explored breathtaking ruins, as he navigated the crammed aisles of a grocery store, and as he sat on rooftops, watching the sun-scorched skyline.
More importantly, this book made me feel. I laughed aloud and snorted. My chest ached in sympathy. I cheered Darius on through his trials and his triumphs. We’ve all been in Darius’s shoes at one point or another—scared, lonely, self-isolating, not wanting to get out of bed. And it was so, so lovely to watch him stand up anyway, and learn, bit by bit, to just be who he is. Without apology.
Darius the Great is Not Okay is available to purchase at Barnes and Noble for $17.99.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.