Jessica Khoury. Origin. NY: Razorbill (imprint of Penguin), 2012. 395 pp., cloth, $17.99.
Jessica Khoury’s brand new first novel, Origin, has been getting a lot of buzz. It deserves it.
I’ll get the negative out of the way first. There isn’t much. I found the first-person, present-tense narration highly annoying. Is that a YA thing? I don’t recall it in the young-adult books I read fifty years ago. I suppose it’s a ploy for immediacy, but it seems to me a cheap trick. A really good writer can achieve it, even for young readers, without pandering to the “everything is about me, myself, and I, and the present moment is the only reality” mindset. But I have to add that, while the narrative strategy was an irritant for me, the story was often so good that I forgot about it for pages at a time.
Now to the positive. And there is a lot. The settings are vivid and the story well plotted and perfectly paced. “The jungle hides a girl who cannot die”–hides her from the world and from herself. But the jungle ironically is also what reveals her. Pia is the result of a series of eugenics experiments which have produced a girl both “perfect” and immortal. But there is a terrible secret behind those experiments, a mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way through as it is revealed one bit at a time until it all hits Pia like an oncoming truck and demands some very hard choices of her. A love story, a coming of age story, and a murder mystery are perfectly dovetailed, with each supporting rather than distracting us from the others (and you don’t even realize the murder mystery is happening until near the end). That’s a lot of plot elements to keep suspended and bring together satisfactorily at the end. For a rookie writer to pull it off so successfully in her first novel is truly impressive. And a coming of age story that is actually original (pun intended) and without cliches? Hard to believe–but true.
But it’s not just a great story. Pia has to confront some pretty important issues as she answers questions on which her life and those of many others depend. What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of truth, and how does scientific truth fit into that? Is there more to truth and reality than science can teach us? If there is, how do we discover it? Is love more than just a distracting emotion? All this and more arises naturally from the plot. None of it is forced. To deal so well with philosophical and even theological issues without preaching (or even having characters preach for you) is almost unheard of in a writer this young these days. It bodes well for Jessica’s future as a writer–and ours as readers.
Donald T. Williams, PhD
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