Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee
Toronto: ECW Press, c2016
272 p.

When you imagine having to clean out your parent's house after their death, there are a lot of things you might anticipate - but 2 bodies in the bottom of a freezer in the basement probably isn't one of them.

Jessica certainly didn't expect to find a foot under the frozen goods she was discarding after her do-gooding social worker mother, Donna, died of cancer. But that is what she and her father uncovered. The bodies belong to two troubled teenage sisters that they had fostered many years ago, Casey and Jamie Cheng. And now the memories come rushing back.

Sookfong Lee described the macabre discovery well; she showed the horror and the disbelief that one might feel in real life, which is often missing in crime novels. This is not a crime novel, per se, despite the dead bodies and police involvement. And so there is much more about the relationships, the secrets, the small moments in the lives of all these characters as they interact in the past. And about bigger issues of race, culture, and the foster system.

As the police proceed with their investigations, Jess does also - she searches out records of her mother's foster children, particularly these two sisters. She struggles to understand why and how this might have happened. And she falls into a temporary kind of relationship with the investigative officer, discarding her wimpy social worker boyfriend.

Jess' reaction to all this is interspersed with the story of the sisters, how they came to be placed with Jess' family in the first place, and how their disappearance was not made into a serious concern. Their family life is part of a larger societal story of Chinese families in Vancouver, both the strict immigrant parent with high standards and an unforgiving work ethic, and the urge of the younger generation to escape. Added to this we have ever-present, casual racism and the limitations that this places on the future of these two young girls. We get to know both of them, and their parents, and the trouble that ensues when the older daughter, only just into her teens, starts a clandestine relationship with a family friend. As the publisher's blurb concludes,

...this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

This story revolved around women; it is a story of mothers and daughters in all of their raw relationships. Jess has a difficult time understanding Donna, who is turn has an icy rapport with her own emotionally distant mother. Casey & Jamie have the same lack of emotional support from their own real mother (who is busy working two jobs to keep her children and husband afloat) and as it eventually turns out, from their foster mother as well.

As I've said, I did enjoy this read. It was fast moving and emotionally fraught, with a lot of great descriptive writing. I had a few reservations: why would Donna, who died a lingering death from cancer, not dispose of the bodies which had by then been in her freezer for many years, rather than leaving them for her husband and daughter to find and deal with? I could understand perhaps if she'd died suddenly, but she had lots to time to think about it. And why did the disappearance of two young foster children not seem to cause a blip in anyone's consciousness?

I also found that the conclusion of the story left many loose ends. We never really discover clearly why or how Donna was involved - how did this happen? What will the consequences be for the remainder of her family? The ending was abrupt -- I was reading this as an e-galley and briefly wondered if I had missed the last chapter in my version. I would have liked to have had a bit more from the perspective of the sisters, especially nearer to the final events, and bit of closure! Even though this isn't a "crime novel" I think there still needed to be some explanation of what exactly the crime was, and how it happened.

This book definitely gave the sense of two worlds colliding, and how the disruption to both families caused something terrible in the end. It was a mix of literary and crime tropes, though definitely falling more into the literary side, and involved some strong though dysfunctional women. It's well-written, with a fresh eye on a story I haven't really heard before. If it had only been a little longer, with a some solid denouement, I would have appreciated it more.


  1. Well, the first paragraph of your review definitely intrigued me, but it sounds like it wasn't wrapped up all that well, which is something that I find disappointing. One wonders whether the author simply wanted to finish the book and thus "closed" things without actually taking the time to wrap them up properly.

  2. I wish the ending had been a little more satisfying...though it does sound like an interesting storyline.

  3. I've really enjoyed her guestspots on "The Next Chapter" but I don't think I've actually gotten around to reading anything she's written so far. Maybe this will be my first!


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