Darius the Great is Not Okay
Adib Khorram (Young Adult Fiction)
Darius Kellner has some very big shoes to fill. After all, he was named after Darius the Great, one of the greatest rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty. Darius the Great was strong, smart, and brave, conquered lands and expanded the Persian Empire. Darius Kellner is none of these things and has never really accomplished anything…although he can brew a mean pot of tea. For one thing, he’s only half Persian or a “Fractional Persian” as he refers to himself. Also, he never stands up for himself. The school bullies (the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy) keep him in his place, which makes life at Chapel Hill High School (Go Chargers!) a living nightmare. On top of all of that, the medication he takes for his depression causes weight gain, which only makes the target on his back that much easier to spot. But life is about to get a little more complicated as the family boards a plane to Iran to visit his sickly maternal grandfather. How can a shy, non-confrontational Fractional Persian with a penchant for The Hobbit and Star Trek: The Next Generation be able to live up to his namesake in his mother’s homeland? Darius doesn’t need to be great. What Darius needs is a miracle.
Author Adib Khorram, who himself suffers from depression, delivers a warm and realistic take on teenage life and the struggle with balancing family expectations with personal aspirations. What is refreshing about Darius the Great is Not Okay is that Khorram fills his book with characters who are not caricatures. It could have been easy to paint Darius as the hapless victim. The “typical” bullied teenager who is sullen and solitary. Instead, Khorram takes great care to give our main character heart and who experiences deep feelings of jealousy, resentment, humiliation, and gratitude without the need for a fall guy or martyr. When Darius is around his little sister, Laleh (an adorable and precocious second grader), we see his kindness, compassion, and various bits of exasperation peek through. As his friendship with Sohrab begins to evolve, we witness a more confident and joyful Darius emerging. Also, Khorram avoids depicting Darius’s intelligent, and charismatic father, Stephen, as the elitist, cold-hearted, and controlling patriarch. Through various situations, we understand that Stephen’s repeated criticisms of Darius are not cruel, but rather a father’s desire for his child to be accepted, appreciated, and happy. All of Khorram’s characters are perfectly imperfect and are so well developed, that we find ourselves laughing, crying, and cursing right alongside them.
Khorram’s story also gave me the opportunity to learn more about Iran and her people, culture, and history. Iran is truly a separate character in this book and although Khorram was born in Kansas City, Missouri, his father is Iranian and the love he has for his father’s birthplace is evident in every single page. As Darius experiences Iran for the first time, we too get to feel the dust on our skin, smell the savory teas brewing in their pots, taste the confectioners sugar on top of the qottab, and marvel at the magnificence of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence and Persepolis. Darius the Great is Not Okay is not only an expertly told story about family, friendship and acceptance, but it is also a lavish feast for the senses and truly a trip worth taking.
*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com