A few pages into Origin (Diana Abu-Jaber, W.W. Norton, 2007) I was aware of being immersed in a rare female perspective, one that felt like home.
The heroine of this novel of suspense and insight is Lena, an introspective and intelligent fingerprint analyst in the Syracuse, New York, crime lab. Lena is the greatest puzzle in her life. Adopted, her earliest memories are jungle and leafy, strange and so particular I found myself cheering for Diana Abu-Jaber for her daring choices in character and narration.
Of course in a mystery nothing is as it seems, so Lena’s search for self explodes, morphs and astonishes. Her estrangement with her husband and flirtation with a detective wind, like quick-growing rain forest vines, into the plotline.
And her involvement in identifying and helping solve particularly heartbreaking deaths, first thought to be SIDS related, draws her back into her past. As they say.
But why did this feel like home? The suspense aspect of the novel absolutely works. This is a page-turner. Lena’s co-workers in the lab are mainly women, each a type not often given more than a nod in literature. They are unmarried or divorced, living quiet lives that aren’t “of desperation” but just lives. They have no more or less nobility and honor than the men who supervise. And to this reader, who has no more or less nobility and honor than the men who have supervised her, or the women who had been supportive or backbiters or heir to a Dantesque lineage of meanness and redemption, these women ring true, in a rare way.
Most everyone in the novel is a bit of an outsider, a fair perception of the world. By not giving lipservice to received definitions of America or women Origin becomes a mirror of our culture. Sure. New.
Origin is an enomorously satisfying book.