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A mosaic of art, grief, and identity

The novel’s structure is mosaic, with each chapter containing something contemplative, expressed in a meditative language, that is not always capable of putting the exact words to the emotions. Look at how Cyrus’s mother Roya Shams describes her friend Leila: “A horse is beautiful, a mountain or an ocean is beautiful. Leila, in those sunglasses, was something else. Something beyond language.” In another instance, on discovering the word ‘sonder’, which means the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, Cyrus thinks, “Incredibly, how naming something took nothing away from its stagger. Language could be totally impotent like that.”

Akbar’s narrator changes in each chapter, which somehow makes them incandescent. Cyrus’s meeting with a cancer-stricken artist Orkideh, who is spending the last days of her life in the Brooklyn Museum, helps him face his questions about martyrdom, life and death. Akbar beautifully captures their meeting. The tenderness and affection between them remind Cyrus of his days with grief. Never would a reader imagine that this meeting hid behind it a mystery, an interesting twist to the tale. And, here lies Akbar’s dexterity as a writer.

Until this point, the novel was beautifully meandering into the uncertain, without feeling like an atypical novel. But, Akbar had more in store. As he delves into history to tell the story of Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi, the author informs his readers that the the great Persian poet’s epic poem—The Shahnameh: The Book of Kings—serves as an interlude to the tale. The author also includes anecdotes and ironic tales of misery from Iran, such as the story of a boy named Alireza, who adopted his brother’s name after his death in order to advance in studies.

As a result, he served both his and his brother’s two-year conscription and was killed during the latter.Interestingly, majority of Akbar’s characters are queer, although whether the decision was deliberate or it was simply the demand of the narrative is unclear. There’s Cyrus’s unhappily married mother, who was in love with his husband’s best friend’s wife. Then, there’s Cyrus’s love affair with his best friend and roommate Zee Novak, which exists at a subconscious level.

Martyr is by far among the best novels to have come out this year. The sincerity of the prose can perhaps be attributed to the evident parallels between Akbar and his protagonist. Only one decision separates the

two. While Cyrus drops the idea of writing due to an inability of language, Akbar takes to it to write dazzling poetry and prose. That Martyr has been shortlisted for this year’s Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize, is therefore, no surprise.

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