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A novel by Diana Abu-Jaber
Norton, 2007, 384 pp
Diana Abu-Jaber’s beautifully written novel, Origin, begins with a moment of haunting. A bereaved mother seeks out Lena Dawson, a forensic expert, urging her to investigate her child’s death, which was determined to be an SID – Sudden Infant Death. Grabbing her, imploring her to explain the inexplicable, the mother possesses Lena through her pain. Shy and introverted, Lena is ripped from the safety of her cherished seclusion and forced to seek death and to encounter the loss within. As she sets out to solve the case, she reads and constructs an alternate narrative, one that would consume her and bring her into her own past, the origin of the self – to attachment.
The poetic prose of Abu-Jaber leads the reader on the icy road of clues and suspicions, schemes and intrigues, and outright madness. Set in Syracuse, New York – a city in ruins – the novel stages the demise of the American Northeast. The murder investigation reads as an existential pondering of the death of a place and of a people. How can a child die while sleeping? How can a city and a way of life die without anyone noticing? The barren landscape of endless winters is but a morgue, where naked bodies, gnaw at their nails as they await the cause of death that never arrives.
Following the trail that Abu-Jaber draws so well, Lena searches for her own origin. Ignorant of the circumstances of her birth, she was led to believe by the couple who raised her that she had survived a plane crash in a far away jungle and that she was cared for by a she-ape until she was safely delivered to the loving arms of her new parents. Despite its metaphorical value, this narrative is tedious at best, distracting the reader from the work’s critical developments. Furthermore, Lena’s character, which is supposed to be weak and unphased, appears in other instances as assertive and even confrontational. Abu-Jaber’s struggle to reconcile Lena’s quest for identity with a suspenseful murder mystery comes across clearly in the novel.
Yet, as all great literature does, Abu-Jaber’s novel stages the rebellion against the human condition and the rejection of its accidental and inadvertent nature. According to Freud, the quest for origin is often a form of regression. The forensic expert is a reader, a follower of traces and collector of prints, in search of the terror within. At the end, Lena realizes: “After all these years of not knowing my history, it seems that I’ve gotten comfortable with living in the state of suspense. With suspense, everything is still possible. Mystery contains its own possibilities – of parents and history. And knowing too much is a sort of loss.”