Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

Darius The Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram is a very sweet YA coming-of-age story.

The story revolves around Darius’ relationship with himself – his depression and struggle with self-esteem – with his alienated father, and with his first real friend.

If you’re expecting LGBTQ+ themes to take centre stage, this is not that book. There is queer subtext, though it’s never explicitly stated that anyone is gay. This feels more like set-up for the next book as it’s left open.

There is also no romance sub plot, but I personally find it refreshing that a YA book focuses on familial and platonic relationships rather than romantic ones.

The writing is simple and readable, a bit juvenile in places, though it fits the character. The chapters are fairly short and there aren’t any plot lines that stretch on for long or posed questions that you have to wait in suspense for the answers.

I think especially younger readers will find the writing style approachable and entertaining (but they may not get the Star Trek Next Generation references).

This book is definitely more vibes than plot, and has a literary fiction style well suited to exploring the ups and downs of personal struggles and interpersonal relationships.

The book touches on many things.

Mental health and depression, the stigma that comes with it and what it’s like to deal with it as well as what it’s like to live with people who suffer from depression.

Bullying and body shaming, especially at a point in life when you’re still searching for your identity and a sense of belonging.

Multicultural themes including family and sibling dynamics, friendship, food and a love of tea (I’m always down for a healthy dose of tea in a book). The book also explores how different families and cultures deal with chronic illness and death.

Darius is endearing and it’s relatable how he feels like he doesn’t fit perfectly into either culture.

His struggle with his own self-image and confidence are very raw.

Especially in the context of the relationship with his father, where Darius feels like the only thing he can do is disappoint his father. In the heartbreaking aftermath of their relationship deteriorating, Darius searches for answers in his identity and heritage.

The miscommunication between Darius and his father feels real and extremely frustrating, capturing that feeling of growing apart with a parent that is unavailable for some reason. I experienced this with my own parents, my father because he is a huge narcissist, and my mother because she was a single mum working three jobs.

This book captured well how it feels when you’re a part of a diaspora and have a tenuous connection to your originating culture, in Darius’ case Iranian/Persian, and get excited about learning where you come from, and where the cultural ghosts haunting your life come from.

Having said that, the way Iran is represented in the book seems a bit shallow.

I don’t know if it’s because it’s introducing Iranian culture to Americans, but it often feels like the subtext of the author is that it’s okay to be Iranian, almost like he’s justifying it.

Then again, with the current political climate, maybe an easy way to approach Persian/Iranian culture is just the thing we need as a respite from the constant stream of problematic and racist discussions proliferating mainstream media.

The trips the family take around Yazd feel very touristy, a thing Darius himself ponders on one of the trips, yet I wish there would have been a bit more substance to them, or at least a few more.

If those were my relatives, they’d be dragging me all around the city and country, no matter how short my visit.

I understand the juxtaposition of having two siblings raised differently, Darius never having been taught Farsi while his little sister was taught, but the motivation for raising both children so differently rang hollow.

There are hints of Darius’ mother grappling with her own guilt, but it’s never as clearly resolved as his relationship with his father. And even with his father, I want more depth to their relationship. The tension in their relationship is written very well throughout the book, but the resolution to that feels a little too neat considering that it has been building for years and shaped their relationship significantly.

A more intricate dynamic between father and son, addressing masculinity and vulnerability from a male perspective, and more deeply exploring how mental illness can make us do and say mean things to the people we love most would have been really nice additions.

The friendship Darius forms with Sohrab is touching.

It’s two people coming together who have very similar experiences when it comes to making friends. They have their ups and downs, but eventually form a relationship based on shared experiences and mutual understanding.

Sohrab’s main struggle is that he’s an outsider to mainstream Iranian culture.

Baha’is, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, are routinely arrested, detained, and imprisoned which is exactly what has happened to Sohrab’s father. Baha’is are barred from holding government jobs, and their shops and other enterprises are routinely closed or discriminated against by officials at all levels.

Darius’ Iranian family are Zoroastrians, and can relate to the position of the Baha’is. Darius, having no cultural inauguration into any of the religions in question, sees Sohrab for the person he is, rather than his social, religious or ethnic background.

The tender, soft relationship that forms between Darius and Sohrab is something that we rarely get to see, especially without having it turn romantic, and their connection felt authentic and wonderful.

However, since Sohrab has such a profound impact on Darius, I love for them to have more substance to their conversations – especially since they quite quickly get to talking about real things, rather than just dancing around topics or taarofing their way through the entire relationship.

Finding out how they impact each other beyond vulnerability and validation would have been nice (again, maybe this is a set-up for the next book).

The dialogue in general feels quite simplistic at times.

In the beginning, it helps to establish the language barrier, but I wish it would have been fleshed out a bit more, especially as Darius and his family spend more time in Yazd and the whole extended family gets more comfortable around each other.

Did I enjoy it?

Very much. It was funny and sad and bittersweet.

The sense of belonging that Darius finds with his Iranian family is heart-warming, and so familiar if you’ve ever been there. It even gives Darius the courage to approach his father in a way he hasn’t in years.

Darius’ story is poignant and feels real.

His struggles are the struggles of a teenage boy, and the way he measures and quantifies the world around him feels right for a nerd, even autistic. Darius likes to ranks things; a reaction from his father as a “Level Five Disappointed Sigh” or defining his bully as a “Level Two Athlete” and a “Soulless Minion Of Orthodoxy”.

Darius’ depression is depicted authentically and we often get to see him struggle with excessive rumination on the page. Simple, everyday interactions have him resorting to “uh” and “um” as common answers as he tries to decipher social cues and mask his way through relationships (again, it’s giving neurodivergent).

One question that Darius often finds himself asking is, “That’s normal. Right?” which is very relatable to me as autistic. Deciphering people, social situations, fluid social cues, and trying to work out how to be, or at least appear, “normal” can be a real struggle some days.

Not having clear lines of communication to his father also doesn’t make it any easier for Darius to know when he’s doing the right thing or behaving in a way that is acceptable to his parents. Though he shares depression with his father, it’s simultaneously the thing that stole his father from him at a young age, and with that a fundamental sense of being accepted for who he is.

Rapid-fire round:

  • Did the book meet your expectations? Yes, I got a recommendation of “all vibes, no plot” and was happy to go with that.
  • Who was your favourite character in the book and why? I really appreciated Darius, his story felt authentic.
  • Who was your least favourite character in the book and why? I think Darius’ father was the most annoying and felt very close to home, but was explained in the end.
  • Did you relate to any of the characters? Yes, to Darius on many levels – being multicultural, trying to find your place in both and neither culture, struggling to make friends…
  • What themes or messages did you take away from the book? It made me feel seen as the multicultural teenager I once was.
  • Was there anything in the book that surprised you or that you didn’t expect? The resolution with Darius and his father was good, logical, but I wish it would have had more depth to it.
  • What did you think of the ending of the book? It felt very true to life, there wasn’t a clear resolution, but that’s often how life is.
  • What do you think the author’s intention was with the book? What message or theme do you think they were trying to convey? I think it was about showing how depression affects both you and those around you, but that it doesn’t have to be debilitating.
  • Which part of the book did you find most memorable? Darius’ and Sohrab’s friendship.
  • Did you find any aspects of the book confusing or unclear? The motivations and thoughts of the adults were left on the sidelines, but as this is from Darius’ point of view, it makes sense.
  • Were there any moments in the book that made you emotional or had a strong impact on you? Darius’ relationship with his fathers, the ups and downs, had me nodding and laughing with recognition as well as in tears.

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