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by Diana Abu-Jaber
W W Norton, May 2008
384 pages
ISBN: 0393331555

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This literary thriller by author Diana Abu-Jaber is a departure from the type of novels she usually pens. The constant in all of Abu-Jaber’s writing, however, is the search for identity and what that means. ORIGIN begins when a distraught mother whose child has just died invades the quiet crime lab of Lena Dawson, a specialist in fingerprint analysis. The infant’s death has been attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but the hysterical mother is convinced her child was murdered. The mother has become aware of reclusive Lena from work that Lena performed that helped solved a high-profile case in another child’s death, and Lena is her last hope.

Like others at the lab, Lena is skeptical that the infant’s death was a murder, but something about the case and the mother’s grief strikes at the heart of Lena’s own background. Thus begins the fascinating intertwining of two unlikely stories into a page-turning psychological mystery. The two storylines (the infant deaths and Lena’s examination of her own childhood) are each compelling, and Abu-Jaber is a brilliant writer whose prose will captivate readers, even as she pushes them forward in the story.

Describing Lena’s own strange memories of her childhood (she was a foster child who was never adopted by her parents) might even put readers off this book, but the reader must trust that Abu-Jaber will make this all work, and she does, brilliantly. Lena has vague memories of a plane crash, a rainforest, and an ape; she also has what appears to be the tooth of an ape on a string that is a remnant of her lost childhood. Both will end up being clues in the intertwined stories. The psychological haunting of Lena by these details and the need to know just who she is and where she came from are as strong as the urge to help solve the Syracuse infant deaths.

Abu-Jaber also knows how to use the frozen landscape of Syracuse, New York, to great effect in her writing. Like many great writers before her, she is able to make the city and its inhabitants almost a character in itself. Through the setting of Syracuse in winter, the author is able to mirror Lena’s own feelings in the alienation of the landscape. Few authors can convey so well the psychological makeup of someone like Lena, whose own past has made her into the reclusive person she is, avoiding attention at all costs, seeking nothing more than to fade away into the background. Once Lena starts being pursued herself by the infant killer, the psychological tension becomes almost too much even for the reader. What Abu-Jaber does so well is to invite the reader into the mind and soul of Lena Dawson and conveys those feelings effortlessly.

ORIGIN, with its wild ideas and fragile heroine, would appear an unlikely candidate for a wonderfully written, enthralling murder mystery. Yet Abu-Jaber has taken every small detail of her characters’ stories and linked it into a fascinating puzzle of facts and feelings about what identity means and the importance of truth, whether that relates to solving crimes or figuring out one’s past. She has written an outstanding literary mystery that works on every level, and readers will be disappointed only that the story finishes, even as they furiously pursue that end.

Reviewed by Christine Zibas, April 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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