Darius Kellner does not enjoy the bullies at school, or his perfect and Teutonic father, or knowing that his little sister is the newer and better version of him. But when his grandfather in Iran is diagnosed with a brain tumor, a family trip to his mother’s homeland changes almost everything about how he sees the world and himself.
Sometimes you just love a book from start to finish, and that’s what happened for me with Darius the Great. To start with, Darius’s voice is so clear and funny, even when what’s happening is not. It’s a book that deals seriously with heavy topics but with a light touch that kept everything from feeling grim.
(Also, I might have known this was a book for me when Darius names one of his bullies after a hobbit. Once an LotR nerd, always an LotR nerd.)
Further, I really appreciated the way Khorram goes about portraying Darius’s depression. On the one hand, he’s almost off-hand about it–he takes meds, there’s not a whole big angsty thing. But on the other hand, it is part of who he is, and it plays into his fears and frustrations regarding his relationship with his father, who also has depression. This echoing of mental illness across generations is very real and I was glad to see that addressed; how it can become something that connects and divides at the same time.
Once Darius and his family arrive in Iran, there’s a great sense of place as well. I loved how grounded and real the details of the setting felt–neither sensationalized nor exoticised but at the same time conveying the rich weight of history both personal and regional. (As a side note, Darius’s love of tea and how that separates and connects him to the rest of his family was a nice bit of character writing, I thought.)
I’m not sure I’m conveying exactly what I liked so much about this book. It’s smart and funny contemporary YA, but even more it is working on a number of different layers without ever losing sight of the center of the story: Darius’s experiences and journey. At the same time, the emotional heart of the book, the way it examines his relationships with his family and friends, is serious without being bleak. Darius always means more than he says, but he’s never simply ironic. It’s a tough balance to pull off but Khorram does it successfully, at least for me. It’s essentially a kind and balanced book, in ways that smart and funny YA sometimes are not.
So, yes! This was a delight to read from beginning to end for me, and if any of what I’ve talked about sounds like your Thing, I do recommend checking it out. I believe this was Khorram’s debut and I’m hoping for more from him eventually!