Dawson is a fingerprint examiner and technician in Syracuse, New
York. She is accosted one day at work by a young grieving mother
named Erin Cogan. Erin's baby boy, Matthew, has died. The police
call it a crib death, but Erin is convinced it was murder. The more
she insists, the more she comes off as hysterical, even to Lena.
Still, Lena has a surreal moment when she feels that she has known
and forgotten Erin. What is the connection?
Everyone recognizes that Lena sometimes has a sixth sense about
cases. She occasionally touches a piece of evidence and instantly
knows who committed a crime and why. Although she has no particular
intuition about Erin's baby yet, she is aware that there have been
more local crib deaths recently.
The confrontation with the young mother somehow triggers memories
of her life with her foster parents, Pia and Henry McWilliams. Pia
and Henry took Lena in at age two and were vague about where she
came from. Lena always believed that questioning them would lead to
danger, but she has wondered why they didn't adopt her. Little Lena
made some startling claims (which, as an adult, she continues to
believe are true): She once lived in a rain forest where an ape
mothered her. As a little girl, when she saw a Tarzan movie on TV,
she insisted that an ape in the film was her mother. Pia confirmed
her young foster daughter's story with the orphanage nuns, telling
Lena that an American rescued her as a baby from the jungle ape who
was nurturing her. That knowledge changes everything for Lena as a
young girl, setting her apart from all other humans.
Now Lena wonders about the recent rise in SIDS deaths in the area.
Nothing about Matthew’s situation seems remarkable, except
for his mother's certainty that her baby was murdered. His case is
reopened and Lena is called to the scene. She half-fears and
half-hopes that she will have a breakthrough and solve the case.
The detective volunteering to drive her to the Cogan house, Keller
Duseky, asks her out but also seems terrified of her. Lena soon
feels frightened herself because what she senses in the baby's
nursery leads her to the conclusion that there is a serial baby
killer on the loose. Even more startling, she realizes that her
quest to track down the culprit is personal --- if she finds out
what happened to these babies, she believes she will unlock
mysteries about her own childhood. In fact, she has no choice but
to plunge into the mystery, as the plot takes one dark turn after
another, ramping up the tension.
Initially, I was put off by the premise of Lena's jungle
background, but as I was drawn into the story (it didn't take long
before I was totally obsessed by this "can't put it down"
multi-layered literary thriller), it felt less preposterous and
distracting. It seems remarkably courageous for Diana Abu-Jaber to
give her character memories of a rain forest and an ape mother. It
is so eminently mockable --- and yet, it works. The author's
descriptive powers put the reader into the freezing winter of
Syracuse and into Lena's mind as well. The chill pervades the plot
with a sense of icy, creepy foreboding that is hard to shake.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (email@example.com) on January 14, 2011