Origin is a dramatic change
of course for Abu-Jaber, previously known for her
lightly humorous Arab-American culinary love stories
Arabian Jazz and
Crescent, and for her memoir, The
Language of Baklava. In Origin she takes
leave of her roots to craft a darkly poetic,
literary mystery set in a cold Syracuse winter, with
nary a recipe in sight.
Lena has an extraordinarily heightened sense of smell and a highly developed intuition that allows her to sense things that others miss. Working as a fingerprint expert in the Syracuse crime lab, she is drawn into a mysterious series of crib deaths. At first they are written off as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome); however, Lena senses that something more sinister is at work and, when her life is threatened, she begins to suspect a connection to her own murky past. As the long winter slowly gives way to spring, Lena's emotionally frozen life experiences an unexpected thaw as the events that threaten to destroy her unexpectedly open the possibility of discovering who she really is.
As the title suggests, this is a novel about origins. Lena's own origins are surrounded in mystery - brought up by foster parents who never legally adopted her she has bizarre memories of spending her early years being raised by apes. Abu-Jaber's earlier books feature protagonists who are entirely aware of their own origins, and are firmly products of their family and cultural background. This time around she brings us a central character who doesn't know who her parents are, or even what ethnic group she might fit into. Abu-Jaber says that she wanted to "look more closely at the question of how people create a sense of self, rather than at the specific cultures or areas that 'self' might arise from." As she points out, "It really doesnt matter all that much, in the end, where we came from, as where we're going, where we end up, the 'home' that we're trying to find or to make."
Although the basic premise (girl with exceptional sense of smell and highly developed intuition who believes she was raised by apes) might seem a little far-fetched, let me reassure you that it is not - to say more could spoil the plot. If you're looking for an entertaining literary-mystery, this is one to take a close look at. It would also be a good choice for book clubs. Many book clubs are rightly cautious of selecting mysteries for discussion because, although they might offer an entertaining read, they tend to provide slim pickings when it comes to conversation. Origin is one of the relatively rare breed of who-dunnits that successfully combines mystery with the opportunity for good conversation. More mysteries suitable for book clubs.
Diana Abu-Jaber teaches
at Portland State University and
divides her time between
Portland and Miami. She is
currently working on a young
adult novel called
SilverWorld but plans to
write future books about Lena
down the road.
In her own words:
I grew up inside the shape of my
father's stories. A Jordanian
immigrant, Dad regaled us with
tales about himself, his
country, and his family that
both entertained us and
instructed us about the place
he'd come from and the way he
saw the world. These stories
exerted a powerful influence on
my imagination, in terms of what
I chose to write about, the
style of my language, and the
form my own stories took.
People often ask me about my American mother, and whether she also told stories. Actually, my mother is not a native storyteller in the way my father is, but it may be that she has taught me something even more valuable, which is how to listen to stories. She made a space in our home for my father to invent himself, and her attentiveness and focus showed me that sometimes being quiet can be just as transformative as speaking.
I have two younger sisters and we grew up in little snow-bound houses in Syracuse, New York, and then spent some time living among courtyards and trellised jasmine and extended family in Amman, Jordan, before we all moved back to Syracuse again. My father could not make up his mind about which country we should live in. In America, he constantly reminded us that we were good Arab girls; we weren't allowed to go out to parties or school dances. But then he encouraged us to study single-mindedly, to compete as intensely as any boy, and to always make our own way in the world .... more.
Invite Diana to chat with your book club: Diana is looking forward to chatting with BookBrowse members and their book clubs. If you wish to contact her to set up a mutually convenient time you can do so through our Invite The Author program.
This review was originally published in July 2007, and has been updated for the May 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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