In this one-of-a-kind, richly evocative memoir, “Everything Sad” disguises an otherworldly joy.
*Everything Sad Is Untrue (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri. Levine Querido, 2020, 351 pages.
Reading Level: Teen, 12-15
Recommended for: ages 13-up
All Persians are liars and lying is a sin. . . My mom says it’s true, but only because everyone has sinned and needs God to save them. My dad says it isn’t. Persians aren’t liars. They’re poets, which is worse.
As for Daniel (whose original, Persian name is Khosrou), he speaks truth through story, like Scheherazade of the 1,001 Arabian nights. She told stories to save her life, and perhaps Daniel’s motivation isn’t much different. “You’ve got my whole life in your hands”—you being us, the readers of this weird, disjointed, dreamlike, harsh, beautiful memoir. The bare facts are these: though born to a wealthy family in Iran (Mom a doctor, Dad a dentist), Daniel now lives in a crummy house in Edmond, Oklahoma, wearing thrift-shop clothes and regarded as an unappealing oddity by his 7th-grade classmates.
The reason is that when Sira, Daniel’s Mom, became a Christian, she was fatwa’d by the Islamist government and the family had to flee for their lives. Sira and her son and daughter that is; Masoud their father stayed behind. They were homeless in Abu Dhabi before going to a refugee center in Italy, where Sira relentlessly badgered the US embassy for sanctuary in the U.S. Now married to a violent abuser (also Persian, and a professing Christian), she faithfully attends church, works a minimum-wage job, and protects the children.
From the perspective of a middle-grade refugee, drawing on memory, legend, and hope, Daniel spins his story. “I am ugly and I speak funny . . . But like you I was made carefully, by a God who loved what He saw.”
Though narrated by a 12-year-old and marketed to middle-graders, Everything Sad strikes me as appealing to a more mature audience. Like Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past (which I’ll admit never reading), it dodges among stream-of-consciousness and flashback and snapshot and myth—much the way that memory works. He doesn’t delve into sex but dwells lovingly on eating and pooping (try four pages worth). But there’s method in that, too: what better illustrates the paradox of humans, made from dust but breathed to life by God? The most moving passages relate to his mother’s conversion. When asked why she would give up a comfortable, secure life to embrace Christ, she doesn’t speak of Christianity’s therapeutic benefits, but of its truth. So—
If you believe it’s true, that there is a God and He wants you to believe in Him and sent His Son to die for you—then it has to take over your life. It has to be worth more than everything because heaven’s waiting on the other side.
That’s why everything sad is (ultimately) untrue—because there’s a bigger truth beyond it. Life here is certainly messy. We don’t understand why Sira married an abuser, and we like Daniel’s unbelieving father more than his “Christian” stepdad. But that’s life. It’s also unclear if Daniel himself is a believer, but he’s not the hero of this story. His mother is, she of the unstoppable love, “our champion, who—like Jesus—took all the damage so we wouldn’t have to.” Any reader should put this book down with the conviction that there is definitely more to living than meets the eye (or mouth, or mind, or digestive system), and it outshines any lie.
Overall Rating 5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 5
- Artistic/literary value: 5
- Some rough passages, such as a bloody animal slaughter at the beginning, may not be for the faint of heart.
Also at Redeemed Reader:
- Another messy but most rewarding memoir is Nikki Grimes’ Ordinary Hazards, which Betsy and I discussed here. Also see her review of Every Falling Star, an account of suffering and escaping North Korea. The semi-autobiographical novel *You Bring the Distant Near includes a similar conversion story.
- There has been no shortage of books about refugees both fictional and nonfictional. See our reviews of Refugee, Nowhere Boy, *When Stars Are Scattered, Butterfly Yellow, *Inside Out and Back Again, and Illegal.
- Another Iranian tries to acclimate to American culture in It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.
Note: An asterisk (*) indicated a starred review.
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