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"Origin," by Jessica Khoury

Jessica Khoury’s Origin, which has gotten good reviews from journals like Kirkus, is a great gateway book. And by this I mean that it can lead librarians and teens, or teachers and teens, to a host of other books and start great discussions.

I mean no disrespect to Ms. Khoury when I say that I was reminded of several other books while reading Origin. This is not to say the story is not, excuse the word, original. In some ways, it is. But it also has a little of Flowers for Algernon (by Daniel Keyes) and The House of the Scorpion (by Nancy Farmer) in it. There’s even a Romeo and Juliet-like scene near the end, and there’s a sequence of native Amazonians dancing that reminded me of Peter Pan visiting Tiger Lily’s camp (I’m sorry to say).

Origin tells the story of Pia, an immortal girl. She was created through years of genetic research and lives deep in the Amazon forest, where scientists working for the Corpus conglomerate have kept her hidden (and imprisoned). Pia longs for the day when she can become one of the scientists and make more immortals like her, so she won’t have to be alone. But her life begins to change around her 17th birthday: Pia wants to know more about the outside world, and when given the chance to taste some of it one night, she does.

The story pits the evil Corpus and its immoral scientists again a tribe of natives, who also know the secret of immortality. Khoury deftly knits together their mythology and the science in a way that makes sense. The book is a page-turner, and it builds to an exciting climax (one perfectly tailored for the movies; it has already been optioned).

I don’t love many YA novels, so I was glad to like this one. Oh, sure, the male protagonist is a bit idealized, and the Ai’oans are extremely noble and wise (are the members of native tribes ever not noble and wise?), but as Kirkus points out, at least there are no vampires or zombies involved. I can easily see book groups pairing Origin with Flowers for Algernon, The House of the Scorpion, and/or Never Let Me Go (by Kazuo Ishiguro) to discuss the ethics of genetic engineering, cloning, and other medical issues.

(By the way, I believe Khoury was aware of the similarities to Flowers for Algernon, because, well, Roosevelt, the immortal rat in Origin, dies, and we know what happens to Algernon. And one of the major baddies in Origin is named Strauss, and there’s a scientist named Strass in Algernon.)

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