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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

Updated: Mar 28

The tone of Martyr! was tough for me to get a handle on for much of the book. The story is dark, nerve-racking, irreverent, tragic, and poignant. Late in the story a fateful connection made the story really take off and feel meaningful.


His whole life has been a steady procession of him passionately loving what other people merely liked, and struggling, mostly failing, to translate to anyone else how everything mattered so much.

Cyrus Shams is an orphaned young adult, the child of Iranian immigrants, and a recovering addict and alcoholic. He is also a self-doubting poet.

As Cyrus sinks again and again into the careless, distracted, volatile ups and downs of a constant barrage of various drugs and alcohol, his obsession with the concept of a life worth living--and a notable death--seems to sometimes be all that tethers him to existence.

As the book progresses, Cyrus seeks meaning in art, in a close, sometimes-sexual friendship, and in the idea of trying to craft his book. The level of his passion for the topic of martyrdom is off-putting to most of those around him, and his substance abuse keeps him at a distance from his feelings.

Portions of Cyrus's book about martyrs are interspersed throughout the novel; at first I considered these to be part of his draft; later in the novel I imagined that these were excerpted from his future, completed work.

The tone of Martyr! is difficult to pin down; there's dark humor, a haunting thread of tragedy, some irreverence, strange and off-balance moments, and a story that went in directions I didn't anticipate.

For the majority of the novel I felt as though I appreciated the story more than I was taken in by it or enjoyed it. For me, the book really took off and intrigued me once Cyrus traveled to New York to visit an artist whose final exhibit was made up of living in the Brooklyn Museum and having conversations with visitors until her death. The ripples of their meeting and connection reached farther than I could have imagined, and this portion of the book was fascinating.

I listened to Martyr! as an audiobook.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Kaveh Akbar is a poet and the author of the poetry collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

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