Review: Family of Origin

CJ Hauser’s new book, Family of Origin, follows estranged half-siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey as they journey to a remote island on the Gulf Coast populated by a group of fringe scientists known as “Reversalists.” The Reversalists believe that a species of island duck called the Undowny Bufflehead shows evidence that evolution is turning backward, and up until recently, Elsa and Nolan’s father was a part of this group. Up until he recently died, that is. Ian Grey’s death brings his estranged children together for the first time in over a decade as they try to understand what their father was doing amongst disgraced scientists on a private island and how he came to die there.

Isolated in close proximity (and without internet!!) for the week it will take them to collect their father’s belongings, Elsa and Nolan are forced to confront their past actions that tore their family apart and perhaps drove their father to this remote island in the first place. Though this community of wacky scientists living in primitive shacks is strange and a bit disconcerting, it’s removal from the outside world helps Elsa and Nolan shed the constrictions they feel in their everyday lives and discover a space to figure out their own relationship and grieve their father’s death.

Part of their grieving process involves going through Ian’s field notes to learn what he was researching when he died, and they soon discover that Ian’s conclusions about the Undowny Buffleheads differ from the rest of the island cohort’s. In particular, he seems to have focused on duck number twelve, which he refers to as the “Paradise Duck.” While the rest of the islanders believe the ducks show a reversal of evolutionary processes and a decline from previous ducky generations, Ian believes that the reversal may have positive effects. He notes that while the Paradise Duck spends less time engaged in survival and mating activities and seems not to learn the same way the other ducks do, it also seems happier than the other ducks. Ian’s notebooks reveal an obvious enchantment with this duck, and so his children feel the need to go out and find it.

While searching for the Paradise Duck, Elsa and Nolan discover a great deal about themselves. They hash out the difficulties of their relationships with themselves and each other amidst preening ducks and bickering scientists in the swampy wilds of the island in scenes that are by turns uncomfortable, hilarious, sexy, moving, and sometimes very dark. But even in the darkest scenes and despite dealing with topics like death and planetary decay, this novel manages to maintain a sense of hope for the future. With her unique take on environmental issues told through the lens of a dysfunctional family, Hauser has produced a novel both of the moment and timelessly relevant; if you enjoy books about family struggles with an environmentalist edge, this could be your new favorite novel.

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