Review: The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour

The albino boy Zal is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother horrified by his appearance. She calls him the White Demon, puts him in a birdcage, and keeps him there for the first ten years of his life. Finally, he’s freed from his cage and brought to America by a behavioral analyst determined to give Zal a normal life. Zal reaches adulthood(ish) still haunted by the dreams of his past as a bird, and as he tries to figure out how to be normal, he becomes involved with an artist called Asiya who has visions of disaster for everyone in New York City.

So okay. When I read about this book in the Bloomsbury catalogue, I took in the information “feral child is adopted by behavioral analyst” and screened out everything else. I was imagining something thematically similar to The People in the Trees, which examines the ethics of studying humans, particularly in cases where there is a glaring power imbalance. Or else I imagined something thematically similar to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which delved into the history of real-life cases like Fern’s.

If you have been harboring similar expectations, release them. The Last Illusion (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is mythic, a retelling of the Persian legend of Zal. It’s an exploration of what normalcy looks like, in a world where magicians can make monuments disappear, and terrorists can fly planes into buildings. Khakpour is interested in how are ambitions and fears are constructed, and she uses her strange outcast characters to explore that.

In other words, it’s more magic-realism-y than science-fiction-y. When I say something is science-fiction-y, I tend to mean that it casts a logistical eye on what real life would be like with some key counterfactuals in place — an elaborate version of a what-if game. Magic realism imagines real life in a mythic way, where the characters may be nonplussed by their visions or powers, but they will continue to interact with real life in much the same way as before. I tend to prefer science fiction, but actually, The Last Illusion was less objectionable to me as magic realism than most.

(Historically I have struggled more with the magic realism of Hispanic authors, and less with the magic realism of Indian and Middle Eastern authors. Wonder why.)

The weirdness of this book is difficult to convey. I was trying to explain it to my mother and failed. I was all “It’s like, this boy who was raised as a bird, like a feral child, and then, so now he’s an adult, and he dates this girl! This very weird girl! Who makes art out of dead birds!” Nothing I can describe about this book carries across the feeling of deep weirdness that infused it. Not an insult. Even when frustrated I thought, This is pleasingly batshit, I will read more.

Not a very coherent review, I’m afraid! As you can probably tell, I didn’t fully know what to make of this book. I enjoyed it while I was reading it (usually), and I may or may not pick up another book by Khakpour.

  • This book sounds completely off-the-wall. Slow claps all around for your apt reaction, “this is pleasingly batshit, I will read more.”

  • This review made me smile. I agree with Words for Worms – “pleasingly batshit” is definitely a keeper. In fact, I think Khakpour’s publishers should put it on the cover of the next edition. That’s a book I’d buy if I saw it in the bookshop.

  • I’m the same – I can read magical realism born out of Arabic or Indian myths or stories but not the Latin American ones. Don’t know why either. Could be because I am Indian but I doubt it. People generally like stories from their home to be real and not magical. Anyways, this does sound like a book you will enjoy reading but maybe not retelling.

  • Wow, I like the idea of this book, but I am afraid it might be too out there for me.

  • This is interesting as I’m currently finding it slow going with a Vargas Llosa and fantasy in its many varieties is a favorite of mine. There’s just something about the characters that I find hard to grasp onto them enough to care. I can admire the fine writing but i put down the book and don’t come back to it.