Fans of Diana Abu-Jaber's warm tales of life in an Arab-American family will find her new novel a stark and perhaps disconcerting departure.
Author: Diana Abu-Jaber
US publication date: 2007-06
Fans of Diana Abu-Jaber's warm tales of life in an Arab-American family will find her new novel a stark and perhaps disconcerting departure. Origin is a mystery of cold beauty and dark isolation, written with crystalline precision.
But for all its internal chill, the drama that unfolds around fingerprint expert Lena Dawson is a struggle toward spring and the light. Haunting and compelling, Origin combines the traditions of the crime novel with an examination of Lena's unusual upbringing. It's a little film noir, a bit independent-woman-detective thriller, and winningly fresh in its approach.
The story is set in wintertime Syracuse, with the crunch of footsteps in snow and the puff of icy breath as the backdrop. Lena, forthright and gutsy, spends her days in a scientific if rote job, comparing and analyzing fingerprints in criminal cases. She has an intuitive bent, though, finding clues at crime scenes when others have missed them. Isolation has honed her senses of smell and touch. It's primal, almost: She feels a chill down the spine, a frisson that tells her where to look for the missing piece of the puzzle.
When a series of crib deaths brings Lena into a new investigation, she slowly begins to wonder if the deaths could be the work of a serial baby killer. As soon as she tentatively puts the idea into words, the national media seize on it, besieging the town and angering her bosses. Packs of reporters begin following Lena as she doggedly tries to solve the mystery.
But loneliness is still her lot in life. She's increasingly becoming an outcast among her co-workers, who don't like the way she deviates from the norm. Her presence in the investigation -- she's a lowly fingerprint investigator -- isn't welcomed by detectives either, who prefer their explanations scientifically based on the ridges and whorls of fingerprints.
Two detectives, though, find her reserve and secrecy intriguing: her estranged, serial-cheater of a husband, Charlie, who can't quite let go, and his colleague, Keller, who is drawn to her romantically. Charlie was always more interested in keeping Lena in check while he strayed and she remained faithful; Keller sees her in a different light. He's not uncomfortable with her loner ways, nor her leaps of intuition. And that sense of safety emboldens her enough to trust him with what she sees as the shameful and strange mystery of her childhood.
When the two issues -- Lena's dimly remembered past and the current investigation -- start to merge, Lena uncovers answers to the infant deaths and some hard truths about her own parentage. She is forced to give up some of stories she told herself that set her apart from others, but in the process, she also drops the barriers that isolated her. And as the winter's cold begins to give way to spring, Lena experiences a thaw within. Turns out she's not as different from others as she'd thought.
Abu-Jaber, a Miami resident who teaches at Portland State University, is the author of two other award-winning novels, Arabian Jazz and Crescent, and her most recent book, The Language of Baklava, a memoir of food and family, growing up as an Arab-American.
In Origin, she strikes out in a new direction, crafting a suspenseful mystery with a much harder edge. Look closer, though, and the threads that connect this book with previous works become visible. Strong women and the search for family remain constants, and that will keep faithful readers happy while cultivating a new audience for Abu-Jaber's original voice.