Darius the Great is Not Okay review

Author: Wendy Tuxworth

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram is a young adult novel released in 2018. I read it during the 2019 Mental Health Book Bingo as it was the group read.

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s about to take his first-ever trip to Iran, and it’s pretty overwhelming–especially when he’s also dealing with clinical depression, a disapproving dad, and a chronically anemic social life. In Iran, he gets to know his ailing but still formidable grandfather, his loving grandmother, and the rest of his mom’s family for the first time. And he meets Sohrab, the boy next door who changes everything.

Sohrab makes sure people speak English so Darius can understand what’s going on. He gets Darius an Iranian National Football Team jersey that makes him feel like a True Persian for the first time. And he understands that sometimes, best friends don’t have to talk. Darius has never had a true friend before, but now he’s spending his days with Sohrab playing soccer, eating rosewater ice cream, and sitting together for hours in their special place, a rooftop overlooking the Yazdi 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. When it’s time to go home to America, he’ll have to find a way to be Darioush on his own.

Content warnings: depression, bullying, suicidal ideation, anti-fat comments (challenged), stigma against depression (challenged), racism (challenged)

I really loved this book – it was definitely my favourite of the books that I’ve read so far this year. I absolutely loved Darius as a character. Even though in some ways he is very different to me (he is male, a teenager, and Iranian), I connected to him in a lot of ways because, like him, I am queer and fat and dealing with depression. His mind is complicated and sometimes painful to be inside of, and I felt that shit. (He also loves tea, which just sealed the deal for me – I couldn’t help but love him.) Some people have commented that his constant repetition of ‘um’ and ‘uh’ was annoying, but I didn’t find that at all. I thought that was realistic, and it highlighted how unsure Darius is about the world around him, and his place in it.

Where this book really excelled, in my mind, was with the ways it talks about intersecting marginalisations, and how they can interact with one another. Darius’ depression interplays with the fatphobia, bullying, and racism that he encounters on a daily basis. I know this is a pretty basic statement but – we need this in mental health narratives. So many of them prioritise the stories of white women, and ignore the experiences of other people, particularly men of colour.

Another area that I thought was particularly well done was the portrayal of relationships, both familial and (potentially) romantic. What everyone agrees is that Darius’ grandmother and sister are actual gems. But what interested me more was his relationship with his dad, particularly because his dad also has depression (there are scenes where they take their antidepressants together) and because his dad is white. (Darius refers to him as the Übermensch). It was just so painful and so real to see two people dealing with mental illness in completely separate ways, and continually miscommunicating and misunderstanding one another because of it.

Sohrab as a friend and (potential) love interest was great, too. I’ve seen a couple people talk about how they were expecting a more overt romance, but I thought that the subtle undertones to their friendship were totally appropriate. First of all, most of the book takes place in Iran. Secondly, it just wouldn’t be in Darius’ nature to throw himself headfirst into a relationship. It means so much more to see him slowly open himself up to Sohrab, and realise that maybe there is a place that he belongs, after all.

Finally, I thought that the setting was brilliant. I’ve only read one or two books that are set in Iran, and this one really takes setting to a whole different level. I really felt like I could smell the roses and almonds in the air, and hear the calls to prayer. It also highlighted how little I know about the history and culture of Iran and its surrounding countries – I really need to do better and educate myself.

I couldn’t recommend this book more highly. Like Darius, by the end, I felt seen and understood. I can’t wait to read Adib Khorram’s next book.

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