By Daniel Nayeri. Levine Querido, 2020. 368 pages. $17.99/hardcover or eBook. Recommended for ages 12–18.
This much-lauded novel is a patchwork of memory, history, and imaginings from the mind of 12-year-old Khosrou, an Iranian refugee in Oklahoma. Khosrou—who everyone calls Daniel—styles himself as a modern-day Scheherazade, a Persian storyteller of legend, who spins tales to buy himself time with the bullies and others in his seventh-grade class. While his classmates do not believe he is descended from kings or used to live in a beautiful mansion with marble floors, they are hooked by the stories of Daniel’s past. Like Scheherazade, Daniel knows that once you have listeners hooked on a story, you can win them over.
Daniel’s narrative is fragmented and digressive: wandering here and there and reaching for myths, memories from his childhood in Isfahan, politics, and his family history. The plot is scattered between anecdotes, musings, and stories about learning to use a western-style toilet and toilet paper or tasting peanut butter for the first time. Daniel confesses that he himself isn’t sure which of his memories are true, and acknowledges a second kind of memory: “the kind you invent in your head because you need to.” As Daniel regales his class, his teacher, and the reader with tales of heroes and jewels and palaces, he is also telling the story of himself and his family, stitching together an identity that feels fractured by trauma: his family’s escape from the secret police, leaving his father at the airport, his mother’s abusive second husband, and the everyday indignities of being a stranger in a new school and country.
The non-linear structure of the novel might be a first for young readers who are used to more straight-ahead chapter books. But the reader stays very close to Daniel throughout the book, and he is funny, irreverent (so many jokes about poop that at one point he confesses his teacher has told him he can’t talk about poop anymore), and empathetic. It’s easy to imagine him: a smart, thoughtful kid frustrated by all the injustice he’s seen, standing in front of his class telling his story. “If you listen, I’ll tell you a story,” he says. “We can know and be known to each other, and then we’re not enemies anymore.”
Anna Carolyn McCormally is a member of Herndon (Va.) Meeting. She lives in Washington, D.C., and has a master of fine arts in fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park.