“Everything Sad is Untrue”
By Daniel Nayeri
Levine Querido Publishing, 2020
Maybe my uncontained enthusiasm about this book can be blamed on the fact that I read it during the dreamy days of Christmas break.
Or maybe it’s because much of the story happened in my hometown of Edmond, Oklahoma.
Or maybe I love this book so much, because it’s just THAT good. In fact, I think it may be on my short list of best books ever, but I’m old enough to know when to put my melodrama on hold. For now I can say it is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve read in a long time.
I had seen the title of this book on a couple of “best books of the year” lists. I was somehow confident I could judge a book by its cover, so I put it at the top of my Christmas list.
I’m not sure how to describe this book. It’s a true story, written from the point of view of an awkward middle-schooler, whose life is like that of an old Army commercial: “We do more before 9am than most people do all day.”
Author Daniel Nayeri experienced more before age 12 than many of us will in a lifetime.
Nayeri originally sought to produce an adult memoir of his family’s sudden move from Iran to Oklahoma (Oklahoma has a Red River. It is not red. In some places, it’s not even a river.),
but after a friend read the manuscript, he suggested that Nayeri shift his perspective from adult-hindsight to his pre-teen self.
And I think that’s what makes this book work, especially because youngsters experience pain and trauma differently than their older selves. A pre-teen may process pain in a way, but he may not know he’s processing anything; he’s just experiencing life as it comes. Sure, he feels things, but he doesn’t necessarily reflect on them like a mature adult.
Take, for instance, the gruesome account of his sister’s finger injury, coming at the hands of a cruel classmate. Young Daniel doesn’t have to emote to make the reader both wince in pain and despise the youngster who gets away with brutality.
And yet, young Nayeri is not stoic or detached. He just doesn’t describe it in the same way he might do in a therapist’s office later. He just tells you exactly how it happened with muted analysis.
This book, in other words, is not a therapeutic memoir. It is a recapturing of the author’s young experiences. Through his naive, young eyes, it’s easy to feel like you’re there, and you can taste the sorrows, the helplessness, the pain, and the hurting within him, almost like a parent who hurts for their own suffering child.
But in turn, you also relish the joy wherever it shows up.
Early on, the author introduces himself:
Name: Khosrou Neyeri.
Hair color: I dunno, black.
Favorite movie: You know what, I’m not going to introduce myself. You will know me by my voice. In your mind, we are sitting together. You’ve given me your eyes. I could show you a hill with patches of grass. Or a peanut butter sandwich. I could help you hear the bells on the neck of a sheep. Ting ting ting.
In here, you host me. I am your guest and you probably think of me like you think of yourself—human. We’re so close. You can maybe hear my heart beating, scared. I have one just like yours. I’m scared all the time.
From then on, Khosrou, later known as Daniel, takes you on the adventure that was his disruptive young life.
Is it a Christian book? Well, yes, but not in a preachy or cheesy way. In fact, you can hardly accuse the author of being too Christian, but you sure-as-shooting can see the believing heart of the story’s hero, via a courage that may prompt you to ponder if your own faith has ever really been tested.
Is the story true? Yes. And that can be both horrifying and comforting, depending on the page number.
So, what is the book really about?
Well, what can I say without giving too much away?
First I should say it takes a while to get the hang of it, since the narrator is a middle school boy who was born in Iran and his primary language is Farsi. His storytelling skills come from Eastern-thinking and are just fine with rabbit trails.
Daniel’s story includes a lot of elements: confusion, sorrow, middle-school bullies, curiosity, a patient English teacher and the student who unwittingly teaches her, persecution, immigration, a philosophy of pooping (surprisingly interesting), candy bars, and even Twinkies (and the surprising character who loves them most).
It is about a family’s forced move from upper class Eastern luxury to the depths of Western poverty (and all the bullying that comes to a destitute, smelly, foreign boy).
It is about the madness of earthly inequity, and the hope of eternal justice.
It is about loss . . . not necessarily death, but loss—loss of everything a child once knew and could never get back, including his stuffed friend, Sheep Sheep, whom he had to abandon when he and his family forcibly fled all they had known and loved.
Though death is not a part of the story, loss is, and anyone who grieves may find themselves wiping away a few tears on occasion.
I guess you could say this book is evangelistic, just not in the way you might think. The Good News shines brightly, yet it is unforced, so that it’s exactly what it feels like—“Good News,” not an awkward sermon, forced upon stranded pew-sitters, but a gentle descent into Truth that upholds the hero, as well as those he cherishes.
In a way, you can say it is not a Christian book, per se, but a sorrow-stricken story that needs the Gospel to survive.
Mostly this is a story about courage, not from within, but from Above. And in an evangelical world pushing passive males to man-up, the superhero of this story is not the stepdad with multiple black belts, but the mom who has an unusable medical degree and unshakeable hope:
The legend of my mom is that she can’t be stopped. Not when you hit her. Not when a whole country full of goons puts her in a cage. Not even if you make her poor and try to kill her slowly in the little-by-little poison of sadness.
And the legend is true.
I think because she’s fixed her eyes on something beyond the rivers of blood, to a beautiful place on the other side.
And because the hero’s strength comes from an other-worldly courage, it is really about HOPE—the Dream of those who look not to the things seen, but things unseen (2 Corinthians 4:16-18), as well as the Truth that births such certain hope:
How can you explain why you believe anything? I just say what my mom says when people ask her. She looks them in the eye with the begging hope that they’ll hear her and she says, “Because it’s true.”
It’s true and it’s more valuable than seven million dollars in gold coins, and thousands of
acres of Persian countryside, and ten years of education to get a medical degree, and all
your family, and a home, and the best cream puffs of Jolfa, and maybe even your life.
My mom wouldn’t have made the trade otherwise.
And so, even though this story is Daniel’s story, in a sense it is also ours, if we, too, cling to the same Hope as its hero.
To unearth the bright and courageous hope, though, the reader must be patient, since the story comes from an erratic middle-school mind that tends to stray and make you wonder if he will ever get back on track. So as you listen to the 12-year-old, you must trust the 12-year-old, even when he delves into poop-philosophies. Yes, even then:
Food and poop are the truest things about you . . . You can’t trick people when it comes to food or poop. If you give them bad food, they get sick . . . If you give them sugar, they
get excited and then crash. Their bodies expose the lie.
And one other thing you must do—resist the pull for a Hallmark movie ending, since the story’s beauty shines out of tears, more than smiles—sort of like the lives of Jesus’ apostles.
It’s not a simplistic feel-good book that will warm your heart one moment, then fade when the poop hits the fan. It is a soul-satisfying story, where true joy springs from sorrow, suffering, and sacrifice:
[My mom] always did what heroes do. The law that applied to her was the law of sacrificial love. The legend was unstoppable belief. The myth was the strongest person you have ever known. Not Hercules. Not Rostand. Not Jean Claude van Damme could protect and love as Sima, my mom, who was our champion, and who—like Jesus—took all the damage so we wouldn’t have to.
But here’s the deal: I am no Tyler Tidwell. I’m a novice when it comes to book reviews. In fact, I’ve never even done a book review, though I did pen my share of book reports when I was 12, in middle school, in Edmond, Oklahoma.
For that reason, I don’t feel qualified to provide a sufficient overview of the book.
But there’s an even better reason why I resist an overview—it might just spoil the story.
So in lieu of an overview, I will close with a few more samples of Nayeri’s writing, hoping it will convince you to check out the story on your own:
I am in love with Kelly J., who thinks I am disgusting even though I finish worksheets faster than all the other boys. She seems to value Tyler L. for his shirts with surfing lizards on them. There is no helping this.
To lose something you have never had can be just as painful [as losing something you have had]—because it is the hope of having it that you lose.
Love is empty without justice.
Justice is cruel without love.
If you wanna know how rich somebody is, just look at what they eat and how they poop. Everybody does both, so it’s not like comparing cars.
Ellie had a lot of sadness in her life. Sadness of the kind that makes perfectly normal people into poets.
Whenever you look back and realize something was the last of something—like the last moment you ever saw your grandfather’s house or the smell of the street you lived
on or Orich bars, or whatever—it can be an ordinary thing, but it also becomes the only thing you have, the clearest memory, and it gains all this extra meaning.
And now, while I return to a second reading (and a touching YouTube video of adult-Daniel making cream puffs with his mom), let me offer one piece of advice:
Trust the 12-year-old. Read. This. Book. (And don’t watch that video until you do!)
Lance Ward is the Pastor of Congregational Care at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak.