Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar: book review

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar 

Overview: Cyrus isn't attached to being alive, but he also desperately needs his death to matter. The obvious track to get there is through his writing. His poetry career hasn't gone much of anywhere since he graduated college. He honestly hasn't done much writing in the interim. He's been focused on addiction recovery and making it from one day to the next. His life has stalled, and his new recipe for making a name before his death is to write a book about martyrs whose death meant something. That sends him to New York City to meet an artist who's making her death matter. Turns out their lives are much more intertwined than it would appear. Overall: 5 

Characters: 5 This book is incredible. I'll say it over and over again throughout this review. But this book is incredible. From page one, Cyrus's voice jumps out with an incredibly strong sense of who he is. Cyrus lost his mom not long after he was born when the commercial flight she was on was shot down by the American military in Iran. Though he never knew his mother, grief has colored his life from his earliest memories. Then his father died as Cyrus started college. Cyrus has a best friend and roommate and maybe something more than that that proves to be the closest thing he has to family now. And there's his sponsor, Gabe, from AA. Cyrus is adrift and struggling to figure out how he fits into the world. The complexities of these questions scream off the page.  

We also get to occasionally see from other characters' perspectives after we get to know them in Cyrus's world. We hear from Cyrus's uncle who served in the Iranian army, both Cyrus's mom and dad when they were young in Iran, Zee giving his own insight into his complicated relationship with Cyrus, and we get snippets of Cyrus's in-progress draft on martyrs. There's a couple more characters who lend their perspective but naming them feels too close to giving away spoilers. Every character bounces off the page in realistic way, feeling so human that you can feel their breath on your ear as they tell their story. The interweaving bits of the narrative diverging from Cyrus's main storyline slowly start to build on one another and allow the reader to put together pieces that Cyrus isn't able to yet and creates a spectacular ending. 

Plot: 5 The voice of this novel is so good that I could've loved this book if all that happened was grocery shopping and wandering aimlessly around Indiana. But what makes it a perfect book is that the events that unfold directly support a greater realization. There's a story that evolves into a powerful meditation on belonging, identity, and, dare I even say, the meaning behind why we're all alive. Cyrus struggles to feel like he fully belongs in America, but his father didn't introduce him to very many Persian traditions or aspects of culture. He's never been back to Iran. He doesn't necessarily love living in Indiana, but he doesn't know where else to go. After managing to stay clean from the drugs and alcohol that consumed so many years of his life, Cyrus is poised for a next chapter. It's an article from Twitter about an artist choosing to spend her final days dying of cancer chatting with museum patrons about death, living in the museum, that does it. For a boy who is utterly obsessed with having death matter, this is the ultimate catnip. 

It gets Cyrus to New York where more of the pieces can begin to unfold together as he makes a connection with this artist that greatly alters his perspective with each conversation. At the same time, we get a woven narrative about his mother in the late '80s in Iran having her own adult coming of age where many of the same themes begin to bleed into Cyrus's story. The ending culminates in a series of emotional moments as all the intersection points become clear. There's a thoughtful, well drawn plot here which specifically lays down pieces to form a beautiful puzzle, but the plot is never too loud. It respects that these extremely rich characters are the delight of the novel, and like the best plots, simply hums in the background to support their cracking open. 

Writing: 5 Read this book for the prose alone. Every time I sat down to read, there was a line I wanted to highlight. As Cyrus thinks about how to create meaning from life or death, there's some truly beautiful lines about what those different meanings could be. Akbar was a poet before crossing into novels, and it's fascinating how that comes through in the prose. It's not flowery or wordy or over the top in any fashion, but it is most definitely poetic with a mastery of placing a few words together to deliver a tightly coiled gut punch. Also, every character has their own unique voice and style that comes through in the chapters from various points of view, which is impressive. This helps add to the feeling that every one of these diversions from Cyrus's chapters is vital even though it makes for a large cast. I found it particularly interesting that Cyrus's point of view chapters are written in a close third while some of the intercut chapters are told from first person and others from third. Those changes and specific choices based on the character offer subtle insights into where they are on a deeper level. 

Martyr! is a book with a lot going on with lofty goals but delivers on them in a way that feels effortless. 

A Few Favorite Contextless Quotes:

"As if to incentivize the whole ordeal, the body offered you dreams. In exchange for a third of your living, you were offered sprawling feats, exotic adventures, beautiful lovers, wings." p. 32

"Midwestern politeness felt that was too, Cyrus learned, like it was burning cigarette holes in your soul. You bit your tongue, then bit it harder." p. 134 

"What I want to say is that I was happy. Not always, not even mostly. But I did know real, deep joy." p. 294

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

You Are Here review

How to Read Over 100 Books in 2024 (from someone who's done it)

The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers review

Even If It Breaks Your Heart review


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