Hapa Jordanian American Diana Abu-Jaber established herself with her first three titles – novels Arabian Jazz and Crescent, and memoir The Language of Baklava – as a lauded, award-winning Arab American literary voice. She leaves her own origins off the page in this chilling psychological thriller – her first, but most likely not her last. With little resemblance to formulaic pulp mysteries, Origin – so aptly titled – is a multi-layered kōan about the challenges, and sometimes the impossibility, of knowing one’s own self.
Lena Dawson works as a fingerprint specialist in an upstate New York forensics lab. For someone who chose the job because the employer provided training, Lena turns out to be rather gifted in her work. When an understandably distraught mother who has just lost her infant – allegedly to SIDS – storms into the office, Lena is pulled into a horrifying tangle of dead babies, empty cribs, and virtually no clues. The grieving mother remembers Lena’s last unintentionally high-profile case during which Lena unmasked the murderer by seeing into all the places where no one else was looking.
Separated from a cheating husband, surrounded by less-than-trustworthy colleagues, finding companionship either with her psychologically challenged neighbor or in the wee hours with the employees at the local bakery, Lena is anything but ‘normal.’ Fostered, but never legally adopted by the only parents she knows, Lena’s fragile psyche harbors vague memories of her original mother who she believes was not human – she was apparently raised by apes. Her mysterious origins are somehow linked to the growing number of small lifeless bodies; the alarming body count rules out SIDS, and suddenly the serial killer’s next victim just might be Lena.
Although the non-human babyhood never proves convincing, to Abu-Jaber’s credit, that Lena believes in her shocking origins is wholly conceivable. That detail aside, Origin intertwines multiple, disparate strands – desperate relationships, challenges of adoption, identity formation, the science of forensics, the layered legal system – and pulls together quite the nerve-wracking, unexpectedly twisted, smartly resolved (albeit not too neatly) thriller. For those of you who choose to go audible, narrator Elisabeth S. Rogers reads with just enough nervous breathlessness to keep you guessing (often wrongly) with each new discovery. Get ready to shiver …!