Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2014

The Last Illusion (2014), by Porochista Khakpour

The Last IllusionThe Last Illusion is a rather exotic novel: it’s a strange melange of magic and  realism, and although it’s set in New York,  its defining myth comes from Iranian legend.  The characters are all outsiders, and the central character, a feral child, is incapable of that most basic of human feelings, love.

Bringing all these elements together is a risky endeavour for a novelist,  but somehow Porochista Khakpour pulls it off with panache.

Shahnama (Persian Book of Kings)Derived from a legend  from the medieval Persian epic The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, the central character in The Last Illusion bears the same name as the great hero of the legend, Zal, an albino who is abandoned in the wilderness and raised by a giant godlike bird.  Like his namesake the novel’s Zal is born in Iran, and also like him the contemporary Zal’s too-white skin and blond hair makes him a freak in the rural village where he is born.  But there the resemblances end.  Zal does not grow up to be a great hero: thought to be a White Demon, he is raised in a cage with his mother’s pet birds, and untouched by human hands till he is recued at the age of ten, Zal of the novel is a feral child.

A New York child psychologist and feral child researcher called Hendricks sees a doco about the child and because he has some familiarity with Iranian culture and language since his now-dead wife was Iranian, he is allowed to take this irrevocably damaged child to New York for therapy.  The novel traces the coming-of-age of the boy.

Although it is made clear from the outset that some psychological damage can never be undone, Zal – through a combination of good therapy and the unconditional love and wisdom of his new father Hendricks – is able to transcend some of the limitations that had been forecast for him.   Despite some residual physical limitations and the damage to his brain, he learns to walk and to talk, and his therapist teaches him ways of resisting most of the habits that he learned in the cage: dreaming in ‘bird’, desiring to fly, and eating insects. 

However, his fame brings him into contact – and disillusionment – with people who are attracted by his unique life story.  He meets the illusionist Silber who claims he can fly (and whose ultimate illusion bears some resemblance to the disappearance of the Statue of Liberty performed by the famous illusionist David Copperfield).  It is a relief to Zal when he meets a rather odd artist who believes she is clairvoyant because she doesn’t know about his tragic history, and makes no allowances for his limitations, considering.  But her family life tests the reader with the question of what ‘normal’ might be in contemporary New York. Both Asiya and her sister have eating disorders and her brother is very strange indeed.

Asiya’s visions gain in intensity in the September of 2001, and they coincide with Zal’s devastating realisation that his future will always be constrained by his past.

Every novelist who conjures the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks takes a risk, but the conclusion of this novel is an homage to the spirit of New York.  It ends in hope.

Author: Porochista Khakpour
Title: The Last Illusion
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781620403044
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


Fishpond: The Last Illusion

The Last IllusionPS 13/01/14 A paperback edition ISBN 9781408858585 with a gorgeously clever cover design by Sarah Greeno is now also available, see The Last Illusion


  1. Fascinating. Love the “dreaming in ‘bird'”. That sounds like a thoroughly unusual book – the cover is certainly very beautiful.


  2. […] Porochista Khakpour wasn’t part of the panel for this session, because she (the author of The Last Illusion) was the very reason I bought a ticket for it.  Unfortunately she had to withdraw from the […]


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