Origin, by Diana Abu-Jaber

If you’re not a parent–or it’s been a while since you had a baby–you may not know that SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or, formerly, crib death) is a Big Deal in the pediatric world these days. We were barraged with warnings when our daughter was born earlier this year: put your baby to sleep on her back (not tummy); no blankets, pillows, or stuffed toys in the crib; don’t sleep with your child in your bed; don’t let your child get too warm while sleeping. It’s enough to make a new mom paranoid–of course, it doesn’t take much!

So when I saw that Abu-Jaber’s new novel dealt with SIDS cases, eager as I was to pick up another work by the author of Crescent, I wondered whether I should read it. Would it just increase my anxieties? But I reassured myself that, based on the fact that this is a crime mystery, the infants probably didn’t really die of SIDS. But then, who would want to kill a baby?

Indeed, that is the crux of the novel. And in fact, Abu-Jaber touches on questions rather more disturbing than SIDS. Would a mother kill her own child? What constitutes mental stability, and who is really sane? What accounts for our memories, and how reliable are they?

But Abu-Jaber hints at these issues rather than dwelling on them, and the book never becomes dark. An interesting note about the setting in Syracuse, New York: My impression from the book is of a rather drab, cold, industrial suburb. But last week I happened to overhear an individual familiar with Syracuse say it is always bright, even in winter, because of the sunlight reflected off the abundant snow. (His co-conversant had just moved to the Pacific Northwest from Syracuse and was feeling a bit anxious about the notoriously long, dark, rainy winters here.)

The author juxtaposes the icy landscape and the sights and smells of industry and its byproducts with the jungle motif that frequently arises in the heroine’s memories and imagination. I’m actually a bit curious about Abu-Jaber’s reasons for these contrasting sets of imagery and would enjoy hearing from someone else with thoughts on the matter. Origin isn’t really an environmentalist novel, but references to pollution do surface, not to mention the role of chemicals in the deaths. I wondered if Lena’s attachment to her “other” mother and her visions of the jungle carried undertones of evolution–some sort of primordial memory of our collective origin. But perhaps the real essence of these images is a sort of fall from grace–the garden versus the lost innocence of the city. If so, it suits the murder mystery theme–who would kill a baby?

The question of origins–individual or collective–echoes the issue of identity that surfaces in some of Abu-Jaber’s other books. What determines who we are? Our genealogy? A geographical location? Parents–biological or otherwise? Childhood experiences? Our memories and cognition? What if these change?

The main character is a misfit, a bit adrift like Sirine’s Bedouin ancestors in Crescent. But then, perhaps the point is that everyone is something of a misfit. It wasn’t until we had finished the book that we realized that all the main characters–and many supporting actors–display some degree of mental abnormality. Mr. Memdouah is the only certifiably crazy person (well, almost), but then there are Lena and her jungle visions; her foster mother, who is clearly a bit unhinged; her foster father, who has suffered a debilitating stroke; and her estranged husband Charlie–but maybe he’s just a chauvenist. There’s Erin Cogan, who’s gone a bit over the edge since the death of her child; and Keller with his own peculiar hangup, and then there’s … but I’ll stop there. You’ll just have to read the book.

B says he would have preferred more clues as to the solution of the mystery earlier in the book–even well-concealed clues that he wouldn’t have been able to make sense of until the end. In his opinion, the culprit could have been any number of people, almost up until the final revelation. We also found some elements of the story not entirely credible, although, interestingly, we differed on which ones. I, for example, considered Pia too malicious to be credible, while Brian found her completely believable but thought Margo’s character a bit improbable.

One element conspicuously absent from Origin, when compared with Abu-Jaber’s other novels, is good food. Lena eats drab, colorless sandwiches for lunch–tuna, tomato, cheese. The special (every Tuesday) when she goes to dinner with Charlie is pedestrian: “prime rib, gravy, baked potato, peas, steamed carrots and cabbage” (98). In the entire book, one dish, a chocolate angel food cake served the one time Lena is invited to someone’s home for dinner, gets a favorable description, though the hostess has said (ungraciously, I thought) that it is too much trouble to make frequently. Lena reports, “I gaze at it with deep pleasure” (149), but Charlie spoils the moment and she doesn’t get to eat the cake. Even Lena and Keller subsist on Chinese takeout. Toward the end of the book, Lena finds solace in “cooking shows–the placid, measured combinations–adding one ingredient to another, the stirring and stirring–that don’t remind me of anyone and don’t make me feel anything” (364). The statement reminds me of Crescent and the peace Sirine finds in the rhythms of her kitchen. But the point is not developed, and it seems principally an allusion; familiarity with Abu-Jaber’s other works makes it more meaningful.

Abu-Jaber’s use of language continues to be a salient feature of her work, although the style of Origin is suitably different from the lyrical, magnetic prose of Crescent. With her unusual metaphors and brief but evocative descriptions she sets a somber tone appropriate to the subject matter.

I found Crescent more captivating, but Origin was still hard to relinquish at bedtime, and I was sorry when we reached the end. I predict that fans of Abu-Jaber will enjoy this most recent addition to her oeuvre. In addition to offering an engaging story, its thoughtful investigation of the search for balance, self understanding and connectedness fostered satisfying discussion.

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One Response to Origin, by Diana Abu-Jaber

  1. jamela

    Potential residents of Syracuse be advised. In a personal e-mail dated 10/7/07 Diana Abu-Jaber wrote:

    “Thank you for your long, thoughtful review of Origin! You brought up all sorts of interesting insights and points– lots of stuff I hadn’t thought of myself! (Though I have to say, whoever it was that claimed that Syracuse is bright all the time is just deluded, alas.)”

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