No one begrudges a person the right to get excited about his or her genealogy, a pursuit that even gives pornography a run for its money on the Internet (which is saying something). But as with videos of children’s piano recitals, when it comes to sharing one’s discoveries, the précis, not the director’s cut, is generally preferred. This, though, is emphatically not the case with Carolyn Abraham’s stunner of a book about tracing her family’s history through DNA analysis. The Juggler’s Children is many things, each one spellbinding: a thrillerish quest for origins, a continent-spanning travelogue and an eye-opening foray into the annals and ethics of genetic science.
Even in Canada, where we tend to feign a certain worldly nonchalance when it comes to cultural diversity, Abraham’s lineage seems unique. A “brown girl” with a Jewish last name and Catholic upbringing, she was the offspring of parents who came to Ontario from India in the early seventies. Her grandmother, Nana Gladys, was an Anglo Indian who, despite visual evidence to the contrary, insisted there were “no Indians in the family.” But it wasn’t until Abraham was asked to give the eulogy at Nana Gladys’s funeral that she realized how little she, or anyone, knew about the family’s roots.
Her decision to change this coincided with the advent of mass-market DNA testing, something she had become aware of through her work as a journalist. Spurring her on were two enduring family mysteries around the origins of her great-grandfathers. Her mother’s grandfather was a storied sea captain from Jamaica who died in 1906 in Bombay, yet no one knew the captain’s provenance; the only existing sketch of him made it unclear if he was black, white or, like Abraham, something in between.
The other, her paternal great-grandfather John Abraham, was a circus juggler from China who acquired his surname after converting to Christianity in India. John Abraham vanished shortly after being widowed, leaving his children to be raised by relatives. Abraham soon discovers a less pleasant rumour swirling around her father’s father: He had committed a murder in China and came to India on the lam.
Abraham’s work as a medical-science reporter (most recently at The Globe and Mail) has obviously made her adept at predigesting forbidding subject matter; by the time she hands it over to us, there’s nary a trace of the wriggling, Gordian worm. Explaining why the male Y chromosome has proved such a valuable tool in defining common male ancestors, for example, Abraham offers this relatable analogy: “Using only the male chromosome to trace family history is like making your way into a smoky old boys’ club: It’s hard to see clearly and the women are always left out.”
Her father’s DNA tests appear to confirm his Chinese heritage, but when Abraham tries to narrow his origins further, she hits a wall – a great one. With no pool of meaningful samples from China to compare to her father’s, Abraham is forced to acknowledge that genetic genealogy is, at least for now, a “Western sport.”
Turning her focus to her mother’s side, the next roadblock Abraham hits is an ethical one. Her uncle’s test suggests, shockingly, the possibility of false paternity (i.e. “illegitimacy”), leaving her grappling with how, or if, to share this information with him.
She faces a similar dilemma later, when she contacts an author in Britain, a descendent of Jamaican slaves who wrote a novel on the subject. Curious to know if they share a male ancestor, Abraham offers to get his DNA tested, and amazingly, the results come back positive. But it also revealed something neither of them had anticipated: that their ancestor was white, not black. Abraham now faces the unsavoury possibility that she is not just the descendent of a murderer, but a slave owner, too.
Abraham’s family is unusual, but so is her virtuosity as a writer; she’s probing, intelligent, dryly funny but enough of a writer’s writer that she can make the awkward process of DNA swabbing seem magisterial: “He swabbed with vigour, in long, firm, deliberate strokes, as though he were chasing the very last cells of a bloodline.”
Tracing your genealogy through DNA is a bit like playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but with the whole of humankind. Go back far enough, and we’re all related. And if you happen to share his haplotype, Kevin Bacon may turn out to be the genetic equivalent of your banjo-plucking first cousin. Which sort of brings us back full circle. Abraham’s book is riveting not just because of its superb writing and suspenseful storyline, but because, in the end, it’s not just about her, it’s about us.
Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor.