Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Published by: Dial Books
Release Date: August 28, 2018
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: A story about a boy and not just any boy. This is a boy who is an undesirable and, simultaneously, unapologetically himself. When he goes to Iran, a place people in his social circle consider his home but a country he has never been in, he meets his grandparents and a boy named Sohrab, who teach him more about love than he has ever known. Chock full of reflections about being depressed, overweight, bi-racial, gay, and unfriended. I cried at least three times. I smiled more often than that. Darius the Great Is Not Okay is the lead contender for my fave YA book released in 2018.
Plot: Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian—half, his mom’s side—and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.
Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush—the original Persian version of his name—and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.
Review: Darius or Darioush: Two names from two locations, historical names for a contemporary boy. Neither is one he can live up to.
Many years ago, I went to a retreat. In California. Where I am from and, perhaps, should have seen the following coming. The facilitator put us in pairs for an exercise involving staring into each other’s eyes until we were overcome by each other’s beauty. All around me, people sighed in wonder, transcendent. Me, though? Well, there was nothing wrong with my partner. They were fine. Eyes, like most, were interesting. Even pretty. However, there wasn’t anything particularly self-revealing about the green-brown pair of irises, or the deep chasm of each pupil. I couldn’t, however, fake some matching ecstasy to what I perceived was happening around me. My partner was understandably upset. The facilitator both frustrated and disappointed in me. I was supposed to notice something and this was supposed to make my partner feel beautiful. This experience has haunted me ever since.
Adib Khorram has been able to give me a way into that experience in a way that facilitator hadn’t.
In this book, there was no question that Darius/Darioush isn’t someone who can be perceived as beautiful at a glance. In fact, he was so very other, the opposite is true. From his frizzy hair to his plump body, his incessant self-defeat, the fact of his depression, he is always outside of that which is valued. Even his father is against him, always picking at him, trying to make him more than he is. Nevertheless, he remains unapologetically himself. Even when those around him ascribe different traits or histories or possibilities to him on his own behalf.
Then he goes to Iran.
His grandfather, whom he’d never met in person, his ill. This side of his family had only been accessible to him via video calls, as two-dimensional as the screen they shared once a week. The other side of his family—his father’s side—so coldly Teutonic, he couldn’t really imagine much different. However, when he lands in Iran, it is like Dorothy landing in Oz with emotion in technicolor.
Needless to say, nothing is as he expected.
When he leaves, he is changed. Not because anything, in particular, is different other than the fact he is loved and he the way he knows it is like nothing he has experienced before.
This book touched me in a way I have no words for. Khorram took advantage so many paper cuts to find his way into my psyche: from how Darius was watched with judgment, for how he was betrayed and embarrassed, to how the most unexpected moments brought him to an unwelcome pleasure of being seen. Those first moments of love felt like splinters: real and painful.
What you may not like: I mean…there were certain instances in which the ruthlessness and horribleness that is impossible to avoid if you happen to be human rears its ugly head. Almost everyone had a hand in doing things to each other that were Not Nice (TM). These events were hard to read. But they were authentic, touching, and written so beautifully.
What you will love: The description of Iran as seen with a Western eye from the lush gardens to the fan displaying some level of consciousness to the love of football to heaving tables of luscious, glorious food. This was described as a place where unlikely miracles happen. It wasn’t just Darius going on a journey, it was Khorram bringing the reader along for a diesel-burping, fig tree laden, alabaster tower, teenage-angst ridden ride.
Also, just because Darius is openly gay doesn’t mean this book will include a romance. Darius’ identity as a gay man threads in the background but never quite makes it to the forefront of discussion, aside from moments of his coming out and moments when he wonders about those around him. I loved that. Personally, I can’t think of any other contemporary book in which romantic love and/or coming-of-age sex doesn’t play a pivotal role in the plot; this fills a necessary gap. It’s a beautiful example of coming into one’s complete identity and of how one can be complete without having to be in or out of a romantic/sexual relationship.
Have I mentioned this is very likely my favorite book of 2018?
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra