Friday, January 17, 2014

YA Spotlight: Origin by Jessica Khoury

One of my reviewing goals for 2014 is to review more Young Adult titles. So I'm going to read a minimum of one YA novel each month. After seeing a blurb for Jessica Khoury's debut novel Origin somewhere on the interwebs a month or two back, I picked up a copy and poured through it in a day. With an premise that hooked me from the first few pages and a protagonist that is easy to cheer for, Origin is just the kind of young adult novel I plan to recommend to my daughter when she's older. With an engaging premise and real emotional heft, Khoury has earned a place on my fiction radar.

Origin, is the story of sixteen year old Pia. The result of genetic experiments in a hidden research facility in the Amazon rain forest, Pia is the apex of selective breeding and cutting edge biological science. She's beautiful with a genius level intellect, heightened senses, reaction times, impervious skin that can withstand any injury. Most importantly, she's immortal. Having spent her whole life in the research facility called Little Cam, Pia has only one dream in life, to become a full member of the Immortis team so she can have a hand in creating the next generation of immortals. Her fear of not having someone to spend eternity with drives Pia to both obedience to her keepers and excellence in her studies. But when a sudden storm leaves a hole in the fence that has kept her contained, Pia ventures into the jungle for the first time. The boy she meets there throws her entire life's plan into chaos and makes her question the motives of the only family she's ever known.

One of the main reasons I've avoided YA in the past, is the tendency for the protagonists to make poor decisions all because of their raging hormones. The proliferation of love triangles and obvious wish fulfillment that seem to be the order of the day, simply don't work for me as an older reader, in spite of the fact that I can understand their appeal for the intended audience. Khoury avoids this trap by avoiding the obvious love triangle, and making the conflict something more important than which suitor Pia chooses in the end. Pia is constantly pulled in two directions at once, but her attraction to the native boy, Eio is put in conflict with her dream of an immortal companion, who she will never have to watch grow old and eventually die is much more compelling than another tempting real life suitor. Pia is also torn between her desire to escape the strict confines of the compound that has been her entire world and the wider vistas that Eio exposes her too. But most importantly, she is fighting against the expectations and perceived value of her 'perfection' that have been a constant in her life. She feels that she can be something more and on her own terms, but the expectations of her 'family' are hard to shake off. It's a common enough struggle that it resonates well even for a forty something reviewer like me.

Khoury's world building and prose were top notch. Her descriptions of the jungle surrounding Little Cam and the village that Eio calls home were lush and vibrant and I had no problem envisioning the environment that Pia and Eio move through. She obviously did her research, referencing a wide variety of flora and fauna native to the Amazon. There's definitely a high level of polish in the prose itself, and I found myself admiring a lot in the decriptive passages.

There are a few things about the novel that didn't thrill me, but the good easily outweighs the less than stellar parts. The big reveals about the evil corporation behind the scenes and the source of Pia's immortality didn't come as a real surprise to me, and there I think there could have been more reversals regarding the motives and character of some of the secondary characters but the strength of Pia's internal conflict was enough to keep me turning pages.

There is a strong romantic theme in Origin, which Khoury handles pretty well largely due to the strength of her prose. The speed at which the characters fall for one another is a bit quick, but is easily waved away by their youth and the fact that Eio is the first boy her age that Pia has ever even seen. It's a decent workaround for what could have easily been a major complaint.

It takes something special for a YA book to capture my attention, but Khoury delivered in spades. Pia is a strong heroine, not because of her genetic gifts but because of her heart and strength of character. And Origin tackles plenty of the universal issues its audience faces with a fresh approach and lush delivery. If you are looking for a novel for the Hunger Games addict in your life, you could do a lot worse than giving them a copy of this promising debut.

1 comment:

  1. Nice goal. As a person who has a love/hate with YA myself I may have to co-opt it within my own reading; shouldn't be hard to toss a YA read in every so often.

    Keep this one on my radar, after all I love an evil corporation tale.