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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Origin, by Diana Abu-Jaber ($13.95)

Is it part of our human design that we automatically try to categorize what we see? We don't have to spend energy re-creating the wheel every time if we can safely slot what we sense and experience into good-bad, funny-sad, rewarding-painful, for instance.

In Origin, this question of category has a fascinating answer: Who or what is Lena Dawson? The protagonist of Diana Abu-Jaber's 2007 novel is distant and befuddled by her senses. Abu-Jaber gives us abundant descriptions of what Lena sees and how that makes her feel. The descriptions are lush and complex. Abu-Jaber describes in hallucinogenic terms what thoughts the objects trigger in Lena. Lena has difficulty with social interactions. She stutters or her sentences trail away, and what seems clear in her head rarely translates smoothly when spoken. Is she autistic? Has she been abused and is now withdrawn? The answers are not definitive, because the questions are flawed. Nevertheless, we initially struggle to contain her personality.

Winter has a death grip on Syracuse, New York. Images of snow, ice, a blanketing whiteness fill most of the book. Lena herself is frozen in her own little world. She is a fingerprint analyst for the police. Her apartment is disintegrating and bare. Her social life is in similar straits. Her work world has definite boundaries and an on-off complexity: either the fingerprint belongs to "x," or it doesn't. Lena hides in plain sight in the dead of winter. Without a serious disturbance, it is likely she will remain this way, even were spring to come, until the day she dies.

This is the serious disturbance: babies are dying of SIDS in statistically awkward numbers. Intuitively, Lena feels that someone is murdering them. The babies belong to families from all areas of town, and from all levels of social and economic means. In a surprising revelation, Lena believes she is part of the equation, although she has had no children. She struggles, mentally and physically (wrapped in coats, hospital sheets, embracing arms, illusory vines, a gorilla mother's arms), to bring her subconscious feelings into a legally viable accusation.

Lena's background is intriguing right from the start. Her memories obsessively focus on how she survived a plane crash and was raised in a tropical rain forest by a mothering ape. When she was returned to "civilization," she was fostered by a couple in Syracuse. Her foster mother is prickly and fragile. Lena has gotten to the point in her life when she needs -- like food and water -- to know about her origin. It seems that the way to her own personal answers is to step out of her work cocoon into the real world.

Lena must venture into a real crime scene. She must battle a nosy, persistent reporter. She feels strangely aligned with a schizophrenic who lives in her building. Her knuckleheaded estranged husband, who left her for another woman -- actually, several other women -- wants to come back into her life. A detective is showing romantic interest in her. A co-worker is behaving suspiciously. Lena must overcome this stressful jumble to make herself whole.

Abu-Jaber, with her striking and poetic prose, uses the wintery motif well. As Lena proceeds with the case and an understanding of herself, the world around her begins to thaw and her ability to speak her thoughts improves. Lena goes from trying to be what everyone else wants her to be -- and not succeeding very well -- to allowing her real self to emerge. It takes her most of the book to finally say, "It's about me."

Here's a taste:
That evening after work, the moonlight is flat and silvery as fish bones; it floats in the darkness, a cage of ribs. There's something weird in the air, in that bone of a moon. The wind flashes through the fabric of my coat, freezing me. At the door to my apartment, it feels as if something is standing just on the other side of the door. I put my hand out and watch it turn the knob. There's nothing on the other side of the door, of course.
You will either really like this book, as I did, or it will annoy the heck out of you; Lena's character drives this book.

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