Reading guide for Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Origin

A Novel

by Diana Abu-Jaber

Origin
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2008, 384 pages

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Which of the twin plots of Origin do you find more appealing—the "whodunit," or the "who-am-I" of Lena's own self-discovery? How are they related? How are the two kinds of exploration similar, or different, in real life and in fiction?
  2. Which of the two men pursuing Lena did you want her to end up with—Charlie or Keller? Why? How would you describe the differences between these two men? Who is the better protector for Lena, and does she really need to be protected?
  3. What about the apes? What did that aspect of the story bring to this novel? Did you find it believable? Overall, was it a drawback or an enrichment of the story? How do you think it resonates thematically?
  4. What other kinds of "myths" might people have about their own origins? Do we all embroider upon or mythologize our childhoods to some extent?
  5. Gender, ethnic origin, religious identification, dysfunctional families, where you're from, what you do for a living—these are a few ways of talking about identity that are popular in our culture today. How do they each play out in Origin? In your own personal identity story? Which has most shaped your life?
  6. Do you believe in intuition? Is Lena's intuition a mystical ability, or something genetic, or related to her upbringing, or simply a highly developed form of science based on knowledge and observation?
  7. Why is Lena so isolated? Is her own explanation different from yours? Do people generally see her differently from how she sees herself? Is she "arrogant," overly sensitive to others' opinions, or both?
  8. How much is this story shaped by being set in Syracuse, and in the cold and snow? Could Origin take place anywhere—or is it defined by the place in which this story is "born"?
  9. In this age of identity theft, what is the truest or most reliable proof of your identity? Your fingerprint, your social security number, your life story? If the last, what if you have a key aspect of your life story wrong—are you still who you think you are?

Author's Picks: Getting the Right Mix

In writing Origin, I searched high and low for models to help me understand how one might go about combining a "literary" depth of characters and setting with the suspense of a "genre" mystery or thriller. Eventually, I found several novels that seemed to work for me as basic guides to achieving this balance. Among those books, these were some of the most exciting to work with:

  1. Kate Atkinson's Case Histories was especially helpful, as she really had the mystery writer's sense of authority and powerful plotline as well as a deeply literary insight into characters. I loved how her protagonist, and indeed many of the characters, had a beguiling world-weariness that defied simplistic formula personalities.
  2. I'd read Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg years ago when it was first published, so my memory of the plotline is murky. It wasn't until an Origin reader asked me if I'd been influenced by Smilla that I realized that it probably was at least a subconscious piece of my inspiration. I remembered feeling intrigued and haunted by the novel's use of snow, cold, and ice, its beauty and menace.
  3. I was captivated by the way Donna's Tartt's The Secret History built a suspenseful mystery story within complex layers of setting, voice, and characterization. This was a fine model of a book that managed to have both a dramatic, page-turning plot as well as a sophisticated prose style and flavor.
  4. Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex was helpful to me as a model of the sort of novel that is immersed in its milieu; in which the details of an actual city—its tenor, details, and history—become an important, evocative feature of the plot itself, just as writers like James Joyce, Eudora Welty, and Willa Cather wrote about their own "native places."

I consulted many books on fingerprinting technique and forensics, but some of the technical guides that were most useful to me were:

  1. Crime Scene: The Ultimate Guide to Forensic Sciences by Richard Platt
  2. The Casebook of Forensic Detection by Colin Evans
  3. DNA Fingerprinting by Ron Fride
  4. The Forensic Casebook by N. E. Genge
  5. Crime Lab by John Houde

Special mention should go to the Discovery Fingerprinting Kit, a junior forensics lab that includes rubber stamps, fingerprinting powder, and cards, and is recommended for ages eight and up as well as for—in my humble opinion—novice writers of thrillers!

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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