Saturday, July 5, 2008

Origin: A Novel by Diana Abu-Jaber

Versatility is a rare trait in a writer. Diana Abu-Jaber has proven herself an author capable of writing both compelling non-fiction, and genre and mainstream literary fiction. Her first book, Arabian Jazz is a novel about a Jordanian widower and his family as they adjust to life in upstate New York. Her second novel, Crescent, is set in Los Angeles and vividly portrays the lives of immigrants and Iraqi-Americans, in particular, a female chef named Sirine who cooks Arab specialties for Middle Eastern students eager for the taste of home. Ms. Abu-Jaber’s delectable third book is The Language of Baklava, a foodie memoir that mixes flavorful recipes with tales from a multi-cultural family.

The author’s newest release is Origin: A Novel, a literary crime thriller set in the winter chill of Syracuse, NY. Among the many things this novel’s accomplishes is creating a strong sense of place. In such frosty detail is the snow and ice, the dimly lit days, the wind blasted nights portrayed that this sweltering Florida reader felt positively cool.

Like an exotic gourmet cook, Ms. Abu-Jaber combines the seemingly disparate elements from the book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the Jodie Foster film, Nell, and the news headlines - including paranoia about terrorists, the anthrax scare, and the Love Canal toxic waste cover-up. The result is an interesting and complex story narrated by an equally interesting and complex character. Lena Dawson is a forensics investigator – a finger print technician who rarely ventures from the lab until a rash of SIDS baby deaths rouses suspicions among police. Reluctantly famous for having already solved one child murder case years earlier, Lena is drawn into this new investigation by the distraught mother of one of the suddenly dead infants.

Complicating her involvement in the case is that the investigation forces Lena to come cross paths with her brute-of-a-cop estranged husband, as well as a detective with a troubled past and a strong attraction for her. More than anything, the revelation that the murders are somehow connected to an illegal foster family placement service run by the Catholic Church, a plot eerily similar to the recently released Christine Falls, personally haunts Lena. Just as the main character from Benjamin Black’s thriller wrestles with his own abandonment as child and his subsequent status as a ward of the illegal baby ring, so too does Lena Dawson discover more truths about her own beginnings. As an abandoned baby placed in a damaged and flawed family that could never pass the scrutiny of a legal adoption, Lena grows up believing she was raised in a tropical rain forest by an ape mother. These “memories” of a lush, hot, animal-filled setting are in stark contrast to the icy reality of a Syracuse winter.

As the number of SIDS death increase, reporters hound the shy and reclusive Lena while she searches for clues. What she discovers is that someone had sent anonymous baby gifts to the parents of the stricken children – baby blankets dyed with metal-based poisons, fatal toxins that penetrate skin. The danger for Lena is ratcheted up when Lena is lured into the frozen woods by a schizophrenic-neighbor-turned-suspect, and she needs to be treated for hypothermia. Lena is then transported to the apparent warmth and safety of a hospital wherein the killer laces her bed sheets with poison in an attempt to kill the one person who is closest to figuring out their identity.

In the end, it is Lena’s discovery of the mystery of her own origin, and the resulting transformation of her ability to form bonds with people that distinguishes this complex novel from traditional thrillers.