Memory and Mystery

By Andrea Shala-Esa

By Diana Abu-Jaber
W.W. Norton & Co., 2008

Readers familiar with Diana Abu-Jaber’s previous books, which focus heavily on Arab-American characters and their identity struggles, will likely find her latest novel, “Origin,”a startling departure in tone, style and subject matter. “Origin” is a gripping forensic detective novel, with a deeply psychoanalytical twist. There is only one Arab-American character in this novel, and his heritage is not central. Food – so important to Abu-Jaber’s other work – plays virtually no role in this story, and even the climate is colder since the story is set in wintry Syracuse, New York.

But some of the elements that made Abu-Jaber’s earlier books so compelling are still here, including her considerable talent for writing believable dialogue as well as a fascinating, complex central female character. This time, the search for identity is not riveted on different ethnic backgrounds but delves more deeply into questions of nature vs. nurture, and even animal vs. human. Memory, a constant source of fascination for Abu-Jaber, plays a key role here, as does the importance of family.

Lena Dawson, a fingerprint expert at a crime lab in Syracuse, finds her ordered and solitary life deeply unsettled by a rapidly escalating investigation into a series of seemingly coincidental crib deaths, which she suspects may be the work of a serial killer. Lena is surrounded by a supporting cast of quirky workplace colleagues, a domineering ex-husband and a new detective friend who is battling his own demons. Abu-Jaber effectively builds the suspense throughout the story, using the stark and snowbound setting of Syracuse to add a noir-like feel to the novel.

As in earlier works, Abu-Jaber’s writing is so fluid, her dialogue so believable, that the reader is quickly drawn into the investigation, the growing public panic about a baby-killer, and Lena’s efforts to untangle her own complicated life story. Was she abandoned as an infant and raised by apes? Why didn’t her foster parents ever adopt her? Is someone trying to kill her, and how does it all fit together? Although initially she appears mentally fragile and passive, Lena grows considerably as the story unfolds, becoming more assertive and comfortable with her own talents – including an extraordinary sense of smell and the uncanny ability to read a crime scene. She also finds some needed closure about her own childhood that allows her to make peace with her foster parents and put her private demons to rest.

Given the current interest in police and crime investigation stories, one could almost picture Lena as the main character in a new television show, the camera following her on quixotic solitary journeys around frozen Syracuse as she and her police buddies solve equally baffling public and private mysteries. Of course, a sequel would be equally fulfilling.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63

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