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Book Review :: Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

Martyr!, Akbar’s debut novel tells the story of Cyrus Shams, the only son of his mother Roya—who was killed when the United States shot down an Iranian passagener plane in 1988—and his father Ali, who dies shortly after Cyrus leaves for college, as if he has completed his job of raising his son. Cyrus is an alcoholic and an addict; he’s considering killing himself; but he’s also looking for a sign from God, as he is considering being a martyr, whatever that might mean for somebody who doesn’t have faith in anyone or anything beyond him.

The narrative focuses on Cyrus, but Akbar intersperses shorter chapters that follow Roya and Ali when they are younger, helping the reader understand who they were outside of Cyrus’s limited view. There are even a couple of chapters that focus on Arash, Cyrus’s uncle, whose role in the Iran-Iraq war was to ride around at night on horseback, wearing a black robe, portraying the angel Gabriel to convince the dying soldiers that their sacrifice was worthwhile.

Cyrus has a few brief conversations with Orkideh, a performance artist in New York City who is dying of breast cancer, as she sits in the museum, talking with anybody who sits down with her. Cyrus has begun writing a collection of poems about martrys in an attempt to understand them and himself, and he believes Orkideh might be one.

While the story itself is compelling, Akbar draws on his skills as a poet to create images and sentences that will resonate long after readers have finished the novel. While watching Cyrus struggle to find who he is is painful, Akbar’s writing makes the journey well worth the effort.

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar. Alfred A. Knopf, January 2024.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite

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