cover image Martyr!


Kaveh Akbar. Knopf, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-53761-9

Poet Akbar (Calling a Wolf a Wolf) explores the allure of martyrdom in this electrifying story of a Midwestern poet struggling with addiction and grief. Cyrus Shams, an orphaned son of Iranian immigrants, is fixated on finding meaning in the deaths of his parents—his mother in a plane that was accidentally shot down by the U.S. Navy over the Persian Gulf, his father from a stroke. His obsession strains his relationships, particularly with his closest friend and roommate Zee Novak, as does his heavy drinking and drug use. Immersed in the study of martyrs throughout history, Cyrus finds focus for his project when he meets Orkideh, an older painter foregoing treatment for her terminal breast cancer, and he realizes he has an opportunity to interview a living martyr. More details would spoil the plot, which thickens when connections are revealed between Cyrus and Orkideh as well as secrets about Cyrus’s family history that inform his conflicted feelings about pursuing a queer romance with Zee. Akbar deploys a range of styles with equal flair, from funny wordplay (“Maybe it was that Cyrus had done the right drugs in the wrong order, or the wrong drugs in the right order”) to incisive lyricism (“An alphabet, like a life, is a finite set of shapes”). This wondrous novel will linger in readers’ minds long after the final page. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified where the main character is from.