Review of “Origin” by Jessica Khoury

In this book, “Little Cambridge” or “Little Cam” is a secret laboratory hidden in the Amazon rainforest, where Mad Doctors seemingly fresh off a stint at Auschwitz are laboring to create immortal beings. So far they have made just one: almost-seventeen-year-old Pia. But a plan to make more is simmering on the back of their Bunsen Burners.

Pia is told by everyone she is “perfect,” which Pia takes to mean: without fault. What the doctors actually mean is: you can’t die, and we want that too. There is only one dissenting voice (at first) in the group: “Uncle” Antonio (Pia calls all of them either “Uncle” or “Aunt”) who always admonishes her: “Perfect is as perfect does, Pia.” Taught to be quite full of herself, it takes her a while to get the message.

On the night Pia turns seventeen, a storm creates a small hole in the electrified fence around the compound, and Pia sneaks out. In spite of her pride at being “almost” a full scientist like the others, Pia has a dearth of curiosity; she even calls the part of her that wants to see the outside “Wild Pia.” But if she had only known! For, once she gets in the open, she literary runs smack into Eio, a buff almost-eighteen-year-old member of the local native tribe, the Ai’oa.

Pia and Eio fall in love in NANOseconds based entirely on each other’s looks, and in spite of the fact that Eio converses in a stilted patois we might call Pubescent Colonizer-and-Native Speak, or P-cans. Here’s a little taste of pecans (so to speak):

Eio: “‘I lied when I said you were ugly. It is not true. You… are in fact very beautiful. More beautiful than any girl I know. Because I lied to you, I must give you a gift. It is the Ai’oan way. I took the truth away from you; now I must give something back.”

Pia, meanwhile, is busy channeling Naomi Watts. Take Pia’s reaction when Eio takes her to see “The Three”: [cue up King Kong music]

“The first is a man elaborately garbed in a heavy collar of parrot feathers, animal teeth, and beads. He holds a spear taller than himself with feathers tied around it. Next to him is a plump woman with intricate facial tattoos and piercings in her lips and nose. Her arms are also tattooed. She is so elegant and confident that I hardly even notice she is naked from the waist up. Beside her is a man so old he is bent double, and the skin on his face hangs in folds. … I know instinctively that these must be the leaders of the Ai’oa.”

Naomi Watts as Pia, er, as Ann Darrow in King Kong

Forrest Gump has nothing on Perfect Pia for brains!!!

Perfect Pia also has some abominably inaccurate ideas about science that are expressed without challenge. As she struggles to reconcile the desires of Wild Pia with the obedience of Perfect Pia, she thinks:

“Before the hole in the fence and the boy on the other side …. I saw like a scientist. Everything was black and white. Reason and chaos. Progress and regress. … Where am I now?”

Wow, in school I hope! Ouch!

No matter: the appeal of science even as it is in Pia’s mind can’t compete with “this jungle boy.” Also, the fact is that the “scientists” are getting more overtly crazy, probably because in The Wild Jungle it is easier for people to experience folie à plusieurs.

Pia and Eio have to decide: do they brave the jungle, what with wild natives and anacondas and such, or do they brave Little Cam, with TOTALLY INSANE NAZIFIED “scientists”?

Discussion: It was a bit wince-worthy to read the patronizing ethnocentricity of this book, and even more so to think that it was possibly done in the interest of making a variation on the nice-girl-loves-bad-boy trope. (wild dark jungle native = bad boy!) The ideas in this book about the superiority of Western civilization and the immorality or amorality of science were also disturbing. Although the author makes a bit of an effort to subvert some of the more obvious Eurocentric assumptions about Westerners versus aboriginals, most of it remains unexposed, and possibly not even at a level of awareness to be subverted. (It should be noted that Eio is only half-native; he is taller and lighter than the other Ai’oans, and has blue eyes. Ipso facto, this makes him more attractive than he would otherwise be.)

There is also no reference whatsoever to what would be the quite relevant history of the centuries-long tradition of extermination of “savages” by Westerners in fulfillment of their economic and/or racist agendas (sometimes abbreviated by the phrase “Manifest Destiny”). (While it is made clear that Pia was not allowed to study history, presumably the others in Little Cam and the author suffered no such constraints.)

New T-Shirt at The Gap demonstrates that it is not only fictional characters who are not fully aware of the no-we-should-not-brag-about-nor-emulate-for-that-matter history of the conquest of the Americas

Evaluation: The writer is not without talent; her descriptions of the Amazon rainforest are very well done, and she did a good job with pacing the action and “thriller” aspects of the story. However, the voices of the protagonists seemed a little too young, and some of the plot assumptions were disturbing to me (see Discussion section, above.) She also could have benefited from better editing (especially for plot inconsistences).

Rating: 2/5

Published by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012


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23 Responses to Review of “Origin” by Jessica Khoury

  1. It’s rather a relief to not have to even consider this book. It doesn’t sound like my kind of book at all.

  2. Sandy says:

    Yeah, I do give her credit for tackling something so ambitious at such a young age, but honestly I didn’t even pick up this book at SIBA. If I’m going to read YA, I need a little more arm-twisting.

  3. Thank you.
    No seriously, thank you.
    I had the same reaction to this book. The Perfect White Girl saves Tribe Full of Brown People story.

    And I so *love* how they make the love interest more attractive by giving him unusual Western features like blue eyes. /sarcasm. Apparently, they had the same issue in STORMDANCER, where the asian love interest is gorgeous because he has green eyes.

    What did you think of the Electric Fence of Luuuurve Scene? Where Eio repeatedly shocks himself climbing an ELECTRIC FENCE because being in love apparently makes him a moron?

    I’ve seen rave reviews of this book everywhere so I’m just really glad to find one that finally agrees with me.

  4. Barbara says:

    As I read your review, I kept thinking of that old movie with Brooke Shields and some boy on an island. Yuck!

  5. Ti says:

    Hmmm… if you gave it a 2 that means it’s more like a 1. LOL. You are too nice.

  6. Rita K. says:

    Whoa – Jill! I guess this one would not even be worth opening up. That is why I read so few pages now before I decide whether it is worth wasting my time. Thanks for letting me know not to bother.

  7. zibilee says:

    Oh boy, this one does sound a little bizarre and not quite properly executed, and some of the ideas that the author puts forward make me a little squirmy. I don’t think will be reading this..

  8. Athira says:

    This one does sound disturbing and way too biased. I think I will pass too. I get very bothered by books that pit good Westerners against bad rest of the world.

  9. Oh so glad this is not on my shelf! I have seen it around online and hadn’t made up my mind yet. And Pecans – oh my – too funny!

  10. Jenners says:

    I suspect I enjoyed reading your review more than I would enjoy reading the book. Love the Pecans!

  11. Stephanie says:

    Sadly, I suspect people are buying that t-shirt not even knowing what “Manifest Destiny” means. A depressing thought.

    The first paragraph of this book intrigued me, as it sounds like an interesting premise. But this book doesn’t sound at all like my cup of tea. I loved your review, though! Witty, funny, insightful, and honest. Love the movie references too.

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    Love this review! The passages from the book said everything that needed to be said, but then you went further. Thanks for reading a book I am not tempted to read.

  13. Sigh… I think I’ll stay far away from this one and I had high hopes for it too.

    • I agree, dangit! I actually really wanted this book to be good and almost all the other posts I have seen lately rave about it. Oh well, I suppose it will have to go to the bottom of the pile or maybe off the pile altogether.

  14. Beth F says:

    Why oh why do authors do this: “Pia and Eio fall in love in NANOseconds based entirely on each other’s looks.” Sigh.

    Me tell truth; I no need to give you gifts: this book not for me.

  15. biblioglobal says:

    The setting (mad scientists in the Brazilian Amazon working to transcend the limitations of time on human lives)sounds rather like Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. But State of Wonder was much better written than than the quotes you posted.

    • Yes, and you know, oddly, I didn’t even think about some of the plot similarities to State of Wonder – I guess because of the YA emphasis in Origin and because the writing did not invite comparison! :–)

  16. Faaaaabu review — you had me howling and gritting my teeth. I would not have been able to take this!

  17. Belle Wong says:

    Love the pecans, Jill! This book isn’t really up my alley but great review. I’d like to know how instalove works …

  18. Heather says:

    That’s too bad because I really liked the author when hearing her speak at SIBA. I’ll probably still read it but I am now anticipating not liking it either … grr. But you’re not the first person I’ve seen to have major issues with the book. So we’ll see.

  19. bookingmama says:

    Maybe a better movie than book????

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