Kate Atkinson and John Banville have shown the wonders a literary novelist can conjure with a crime story. Now Diana Abu-Jaber, the author of book-club favorites Crescent and The Language of Baklava, attempts the same crossover. While Origin is artfully written, this daftly plotted whodunit is a considerably shakier example of the genre.
Narrator Lena Dawson is a fingerprint analyst in Syracuse, N.Y., who becomes obsessed with a series of unexplained infant deaths. Some in her department believe the babies are victims of SIDS, but Lena thinks a serial killer may be stalking the nurseries of upstate New York. Like most great literary crime-solvers, Lena is simultaneously sorting out some knotty issues of her own, including a slimy ex-husband she hasn’t quite gotten out of her system. There’s also the tetchy relationship with her foster mother, who refuses to answer questions about Lena’s earliest childhood. And with nothing else to go on, Lena is under the impression that she spent the first two years of her life in a rain forest, nurtured by a gorilla. Yes, you read that correctly.
It would be nice to report that Abu-Jaber approaches the ape angle with a sense of humor, but she is apparently quite in earnest. The thriller elements of Origin are strong enough to make you want to keep reading, but you won’t be able to help rolling your eyes. B-