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Book review: The Last Illusion - premonitions of 9/11

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm

The Last Illusion
by Porochista Khakpour
Bloomsbury

For the past 13 years, any New York novel in the realist mode has had a problem on its hands: how to write about an event whose significance is so huge that it is known by a date rather than a name? To ignore 9/11 entirely is too conspicuous an omission, but repurposing it in fiction is both stylistically and morally tricky.

Porochista Khakpour's audacious second novel is set during 2000 and 2001, and the impending attacks are foreshadowed explicitly. First, there are the premonitions of Asiya, an anorexic, mentally unstable young artist who becomes convinced something terrible is about to happen to Manhattan. Second, there are the delusions of Silber, a celebrity magician intent on pulling off one final stunt who has the idea of "disappearing" the World Trade Centre.

Khakpour's imagination is similarly ambitious in its scope. The narrative is not Silber's, or even Asiya's, but belongs to the young man who fascinates them both: Zal, the last and 19th child of Khanoom, a demented woman living in a small village in Iran. Zal's mother is so horrified by her son's paleness that she calls him "White Demon" and locks him in a cage in her aviary. There he grows up eating bugs and birdseed, and mimicking the squawks of the canaries around him.

This is a reimagining of one of the most famous tales in The Shahnameh, the epic Persian poem in which an albino child's parents abandon him on a mountaintop, where he's raised by a mythical bird.

It's not a giant bird that takes Zal under its wing, however, but an American called Anthony Hendricks, a kindly child psychologist and expert in feral children. Hendricks flies to Tehran, adopts the 10-year-old Zal, and takes him home to New York, where he tries to coax his adopted son into personhood.

Falling rather than flying is a theme that grows as the novel progresses, so that by the night before Silber's stunt at the World Trade Centre we, like Asiya, have a sense of the big fall about to come.

Guardian News & Media