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Martyr! – Kaveh Akbar (book review)

Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! is a brilliant piece of writing, focusing on the mental struggle of an orphaned son of Iranian immigrants as he seeks meaning from life. The novel weaves together the protagonist’s voice and those of the poets and friends he looks to for help, on a journey that takes him serendipitously to Brooklyn Museum, discussing martyrdom with a terminally ill artist and creating meaning through death.

Cyrus Shams is a young man struggling to come to terms with the cards life has dealt him, having lost his mother early in life when the plane she was travelling in was shot down over Tehran by the US. We see Cyrus at many stages of his struggle throughout: as a drunk, an addict, and finally as a poet attempting sobriety.

With a focus on martyrs, he considers his uncle, as well as his mother, and the roles their lives played, alongside the ways in which they gave up those lives, in particular with the story of his mother. Cyrus resists his own sexuality for much of this novel, perhaps as an aspect of his own martyrdom or perhaps out of guilt for the way he believes his family’s lives have played out. We witness much of this through how he treats his friend Zee, with whom he falls into a sexual relationship: Cyrus occasionally attempts to date women but always comes back to Zee.

Dense and yet humorous, Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! is a profound contemporary novel that explores in a considered fashion the many layers to this man’s mental battle. Sumptuous in its prose, aptly poetic in a novel in which a poet takes centre stage, it will hold you throughout Cyrus’ wondrous journey.

Martyr! will be published 7th March, by Picador

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