(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky NOV 10, 2007)
In Diana Abu-Jaber's Origin, Lena Dawson is the first person narrator. For eleven years, she has been a fingerprint examiner and technician in the Wardell Center for Forensic Sciences in upstate New York. Although she has no college degree, Lena is intelligent, highly intuitive, and extremely skilled at her job. Six years earlier, she was the one who solved the bewildering case of a young boy who was found murdered in his bed. Although her boss offered her a promotion, she turned it down, because she wanted to avoid "gloomy work at crime scenes, hands-on investigation with obsessive-compulsive detectives, [and] mind-numbing hours of testimony in court." She insists, "I basically like to be left alone."
Lena, who is in her early thirties, was raised by foster parents. No one knows the identity of her birth mother and father. For years, she has had vivid dreams of being raised in the wild by gorillas and then being rescued and returned to civilization, but there is no evidence to back up these fantasies. Outside of her work in the lab, Lena lives a solitary existence. She is amicably separated from her unfaithful husband, a cop named Charlie, and she lives a humdrum life in a run-down apartment with sporadic heat and hot water.
Everything changes when a series of crib deaths raises red flags in the lab. One of the babies, Matthew Cogan, was from a wealthy and influential family. Erin, Matthew's mother, insists that her child was murdered by an unknown assailant and she demands that the police work harder to catch the perpetrator. Since the detectives find nothing to support Mrs. Cogan's assertions, the authorities dismiss her as an irrational woman overwhelmed by grief. However, when Lena visits the Cogan home, she senses that something sinister is going on; equally horrifying, she has the strong impression that the Cogan case is somehow connected to her shadowy childhood. She decides that, for her own peace of mind, she must pursue the investigation to its conclusion. Lena is a person of great courage and integrity who is willing to risk her reputation and even her life to find a killer.
Origin is a beautifully written and evocative novel with an unforgettable heroine. Lena Dawson is a sensitive and emotionally damaged woman who does not trust easily. When a new man enters her life, a gentle and caring detective named Keller Duseky, Lena is at first reluctant to reciprocate his affection. Fortunately, Keller is a patient individual who is willing to give Lena the space and time that she needs.
Abu-Jaber sets her novel in economically depressed Syracuse, New York, during a bitterly cold winter. The inhabitants must endure stinging winds and blinding snow that continues for days without any signs of abating. This forbidding climate exacerbates Lena's loneliness. It is also the perfect backdrop for a narrative populated with twisted and malevolent individuals who lie, scheme, cheat, and commit murder. The intricate plot is lucidly and carefully constructed; the impeccable pacing and skillful foreshadowing impel the reader to keep reading while the suspense inexorably builds. The ending is a stunner with jolting twists and turns that shed new light on everything that has gone before. Origin is a fascinating exploration of these and other intriguing questions: Are we the product of biology, nurture or both? What is the connection between memory and reality? How does our physical environment affect our emotions and behavior? Diana Abu-Jaber has written a thought-provoking and compelling murder mystery, a mesmerizing psychological thriller, and a satisfying and poignant romance. Origin is one of my favorite books so far this year.
- Amazon readers rating: from 45 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Language of Baklava (March 2005)
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- Official website for Diana Abu-Jaber
- Voices from the Gap on Diana Abu-Jaber
- Curled Up interview with Diana Abu-Jaber
- MostlyFiction.com review of Crescent
- MostlyFiction.com review of Birds of Paradise
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About the Author:
Diana Abu-Jaber ws born in upstate New York and lived there until her family moved to Amman, Jordan when she was seven-years-old. Her father is Jordanian and her mother is American, and she has lived between America and Jordan ever since.
She received her doctorate in English literature from the State University of New York. She has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon, and UCLA.
Her first novel, Arabian Jazz won the Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the national PEN/Hemingway award. Crescent won the Pen Center Award
She currently teaches at Portland State University and divides her time between Portland, Oregon and Miami, Florida.