Book 27 on My Book List 2022
For Fariba Bahrami, love was an opportunity, not a burden.
I swallowed away the lump in my throat. „I love you, Mamou.“
I thought long and hard about how to start my review of “Darius the Great Is Not Okay” because it’s not easy to put everything I thought and felt into words. It’s actually pretty challenging but I’ll try to do it anyway because I really enjoyed this book and had a great, interesting, educational or all of the above(?) time with this story. I guess you can already see that I’m struggling to put my reading experience into words and this is mostly due to the fact that Adib Khorram addressed so many important topics in this book yet still managed to pull it off somehow. I think if you’re set on it you could describe the story with one sentence: Darius visits his Persian grandparents in Iran and makes a friend named Sohrab. But what this sentence won’t be able to convey are all the different layers this story actually entails.
„Did you ever think that you wouldn’t get picked on so much if you weren’t so…”
Dad worked his jaw back and forth.
“So what, Dad?”
But he didn’t answer. What could he possibly say?
One of the main topics in this coming-of-age novel is definitely the rocky relationship between Darius and his dad Stephen Kellner. The mere fact our MC always thinks of his father as the Übermensch and even uses his full name instead of just “dad” gives the reader a very good impression of how distant those two actually are. It really made me extremely sad to read about their interactions and to see how Darius’s dad didn’t get that he was hurting his son with every single word he uttered and with every action he took. The worst thing about their situation is that as a reader you get that Stephen only wants to protect his son from harm but apparently is incapable of telling Darius how he feels. Those two are clearly not the best at communicating and this leads to a lot of hurtful moments and misunderstandings between Darius and his father. Though admittedly some of the things like Stephen’s constant criticism of Darius’s weight clearly were no misunderstanding and only added to their already existing tensions.
”Maybe Dad was right. Maybe I would always be a target.
Even for things I couldn’t help. Like being from America. Like having a foreskin.
Those things were normal back home, but not in Iran.
I would never fit in. Not anywhere.“
Another theme of this book is the bullying Darius is subjected to at home and even in Iran. In America there’s a boy named Trent Bolger who’s a bully and makes his life even harder than it is and in Iran there are two boys Sohrab and Darius play football with that pick on him at first. Add to that Darius’s constant feeling of being in the middle of two cultures and not belonging to either of them and you can see that Adib Khorram truly did his best to tackle a lot of serious topics. The interesting thing is that they all complete each other and work together so well. Darius exploring his roots and identity as a Persian who lives in America are at least as vital to his development as him spending some time with his grandparents and the rest of his family.
”I had never been surrounded by my family before. Not really. When Dayi Jamsheed started herding us together into a big group photo, my eyes started burning. I couldn’t help it.
I loved them.”
But that’s not all. The reason why Darius and his family are even visiting Iran is because his grandfather is very ill and will most likely die soon. So this adds another layer to the story and a very well done and bittersweet grief rep I couldn’t help but notice. And yes, you can already grief for a person even if the person is still alive. Take it from a graduate grief counsellor. Illnesses and diseases can take away the people you love long before they actually die. In Darius’s case it’s even worse because he’s only getting to know his grandfather and knows that he will be gone soon. The author tackled this topic in a very sensitive and careful manner and I think he did it more than just well.
”Standing in that temple, staring into the fire that had been burning for hundreds of years, I felt the ghosts of my family all around me. Their soft presence raised the hair on my arms and tickled at my eyelashes.
I wiped my eyes and stood there, lost in the fire.
I knew that Babou was going to be one of those ghosts soon too.
No one had to say it out loud.”
Yet another theme he addressed was Persian culture with all its little and bigger cultural quirks and I absolutely loved to learn about it! Honestly, the way Persian food was explained and described caused my mouth to water and it was very interesting to read about cultural habits and Persian history. I kinda had to laugh when the reader was introduced to taarofing because I realized that Persian and Romanian culture aren’t all that different after all, at least not when it comes to this. My in-laws are masters at taarofing and it took me a while to get the hang of it. *lol* By now I can taarof the hell out of everybody as well, though, so beware of me and my taarofing skils. ;-P
”Darioush. You remember what I told you? Your place was empty?”
“Your place was empty for me too,” he said. “I never had a friend either.”
Anyway! Let’s continue to talk about the book and the strong focus on Darius’s friendship with Sohrab instead. And let me tell you, I adored the fact that there was such a strong friendship representation in this story without it turning into anything romantic in the end. I think the potential was definitely there but it didn’t happen and I appreciated that the author decided to focus on all the other topics first. It rounded the entire story off and made room for a potential exploration of Darius’s sexuality in the next book. So kudos to Adib Khorram for tying up all the loose ends in the first book while still giving Darius time and room to explore this important part of himself in the second instalment. And I’m convinced this will happen in book two!
”You really love Sohrab. Huh?”
“He’s the best friend I ever had.”
Dad looked at me for a long moment. Like he knew there was more. But he didn’t ask.
Whether it will happen with Sohrab or another boy/girl/non-binary person, etc. I don’t know but I’m definitely ready to accompany Darius on this journey. His friendship with Sohrab made me cry near the ending and broke my heart into tiny little pieces and I don’t know how they’ll come out of everything that happened in those last couple of chapters. I really hope they’ll find a way to stay in contact and to continue to be best friends. This said the last topic I have to talk about is the depression representation we experience first-hand through Darius’s POV and I think just like any other serious topic that was tackled in here, it was also done very well.
„Suicide isn’t the only way you can lose someone to depression.”
Dad looked at me again. There were no walls between us.
“And it kills me that I gave it to you, Darius. It kills me.”
I was so relieved when this subject was finally addressed and though the relationship with his father might still be strained for a while I think them talking about it will help them in the long-run. Depression is a mood disorder that accompanies you your entire life and sometimes it will be extremely strong and sometimes it will feel like it’s not even there or entirely gone. Darius and his father both take medicine to keep it in check and apparently this is frowned upon in Persian culture.
I’ve never explored depression from a Persian POV before but it was very interesting to hear how it is viewed in this culture. I can only speak about what I read in this book and what I found out when I did my online research (yes, this book actually made me look up depression in Persian culture!) but as it seems mental illnesses are viewed as a familial flaw because familial reputation and relationships are very important aspects of Iranian culture. So if you’re unhappy and depressed it reflects negatively on your family which seems to be the reason they don’t even want to acknowledge its existence. I found this to be a pretty tough stance because it’s not in a depressed person’s power to be “happy”. I couldn’t help but wonder how high the suicide rate might be if mental illnesses like depression don’t get the right treatment. I mean as we all know untreated depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and death. So I looked up the statistics and according to wiki suicide it’s a growing concern in Iran and “mental disorders” are actually stated as the main reason for men (41%!) attempting to end their lives! For women it’s on second place with 31% – And to give you an even better picture: In 27% of the cases the person concerned already had a long medical record. (compare Wikipedia on “Suicide in Iran”, just in case you also want to dig deeper.)
”You’re okay,” he murmured.
“No. I’m not.”
“I know.” He rubbed my back up and down. “It’s okay not to be okay.”
Sorry for that long excursion but I really like it when books make me think and force me to do some digging and “Darius the Great Is Not Okay” obviously caused me to do both. All told, I really enjoyed this story. Adib Khorram has a way of telling a tale while including a lot of intriguing topics and explaining Persian culture throughout the entire book without it ever getting boring or feeling like a chore. You might say he effortlessly included it in his story and gave it room to be explored. Add to that Darius’s struggles, his friendship with Sohrab and the way he connected with his family and roots and you have a wonderful coming-of-age story that even caused me to cry at the ending. “Darius the Great Is Not Okay” is a beautifully crafted book and I’m already very excited to pick up the sequel!
trigger warnings:depression, racist comments, bullying, grief, fatphobic comments, depression being criticized (challenged)