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Gabi's Review

Martyr! is acclaimed American poet Kaveh Akbar’s debut novel. This highly unusual book can perhaps be described as an existential comedy about the difficulty of finding beauty in banality and sense in suffering. The combination of a complex story and resonant, poetic prose makes Martyr! a highly engrossing read.

The central character, Cyrus Shams, is a Persian-born young man who was taken to the United States as an infant by his father. Losing his mother in a tragic accident and dealing with lifelong struggles with depression, insomnia, and addiction, Cyrus also grapples with the burden of racism, grief, and social alienation. Failing to find meaningful subjects as a writer, he decides to seek inspiration from the lives of famous martyrs. He then travels to a museum in New York, where he encounters a woman from Iran who, having chosen to refuse treatment for her terminal cancer, has created a piece of performance art called ‘Death Speak.’ As the artist engages with strangers and answers their questions about her condition, Cyrus comes to understand what might make for a meaningful life.

Martyr! creates other and similarly intriguing narratives:  accounts of Cyrus's relationships, struggles with addiction, and constant thoughts of death; Persian myths; and perspectives from family members and friends. The novel also includes examples of Cyrus’s imagined conversations between two characters; one particularly hilarious example is Lisa Simpson in conversation with Cyrus's dead mother. While this mix of voices and characters could be overwhelming, Akbar masterfully blends each element into a captivating whole. The overall effect is to affirm the power of stories to create meaning in our lives and provide consolation.

Cyrus ultimately unravels the tangled web of his existence and finds clarity and redemption through a transformative revelation. Martyr! is a stimulating, humorous, and inventive work of contemporary fiction, confirming the writerly skills of prize-winning poet Kaveh Akbar.

Washington Post and NY Times Reviews

Publishers Reviews

Cyrus Shams is lost. The orphaned son of Iranian immigrants, Cyrus never knew his mother. Killed when her plane was shot down over the Persian Gulf in a senseless accident, Cyrus has spent his life grappling with the meaningless nature of his mother’s death. Now he is set to learn the truth of her life. When Cyrus’s obsession with the lives of the martyrs – Bobby Sands, Joan of Arc – leads him to a chance encounter with a dying artist, he finds himself drawn towards the mysteries of his past: an uncle who rode through Iranian battlefields dressed as the Angel of Death; and toward his mother, who may not have been who or what she seemed. As Cyrus searches for meaning in the scattered clues of his life, a final revelation transforms everything he thought he knew. Electrifying, funny, wholly original, and profound, Martyr! heralds the arrival of a blazing and essential new voice in contemporary fiction.

"Elegant, dizzying and Playful" Lauren Groff

"I haven't loved a book this much in years"! Tommy Orange

"Brilliant and blisteringly alive, I kept forgetting to breath". John Green