Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

Author: Jen Sookfong Lee
Title: The Conjoined
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 262 pages
Genre: Contemporary
Why I Read: Premise + setting intrigued me
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
Thanks to ECW Press for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review,

 On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery — two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng — troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away. As Jessica learns more about Casey, Jamie, and their troubled immigrant Chinese parents, she also unearths dark stories about Donna, whom she had always thought of as the perfect mother. The complicated truths she uncovers force her to take stock of own life. Moving between present and past, this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

One might argue that the cover and jacket description tricks the reader into thinking this is a dark thriller in the vein so popular these days. That closing statement (underlined above), however, hints there’s more going on here than a gruesome murder mystery. For me, this is a story about family relationships and how they can break and fail. It’s also about identity, suffering, broken social systems, and understanding how the past forms us. There’s a lot going on here, but these themes organically engage and shape one another in The Conjoined, out next Tuesday (Sept 13).

Despite knowing that two young foster girls would end up dead in a freezer, I didn’t anticipate having my heart broken by Casey and Jamie. The story’s focus on family relationships and broken social systems makes for a tough read. Lee takes us inside the the girls’ family and shows us how their lives fell apart. This quote from the girls’ mother’s perspective especially got me:

No one would believe that she was a good mother. No one would think she had tried her best. She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. (81)

Prose like Lee’s makes me think about why I could never be a strong writer. It’s the little vignettes that always make me pause. Those small personal observations of thoughts, characters, events, etc., bring depth and beauty to the story. These sorts of things I would never think to write about. I’m not a close observer of the world around me (alas, one of my faults!). This is why I love reading. To see, experience, feel, things I might otherwise have overlooked. Example:

She didn’t know what she was crying about – her mother, Trevor, or the girls – but it didn’t matter. She knew that weeping was its own vortex. It spun and pulled until identifiable feelings were no more than fragments, like half-words that only hinted at meaning. She let her arms and legs curl until she was huddled, small, on the floor of the hallway. (26)

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains general spoilers for the conclusion.


I did wonder about the fact that neither Jess nor her father (let alone anyone else) ever went into those freezers for 27 years. The detective briefly addresses this conundrum at one point, but it’s a moot point. This not a whodunit. For those of us who like tidy stories with clear endings, we might find reason to be unsatisfied here. Personally, I felt only a small bit of disappointment. Of course I would rather know than not know, but not knowing didn’t spoil the ending, as it might have in a lesser story.  I understand that you can’t always get a neat little ending with all the answers (in life or in fiction).  This story is, to some extent, about how two girls wind up in a freezer – but it is not about the particular logistics; it’s about something more. And I’m sure this ties in, somehow, to Jess’s growth as a character and her acceptance with not knowing what happened and not knowing her mother as well as she thought. But that’s a bit beyond my literary analysis capabilities. 😛

Some final notes on things I liked: I liked Jess, mostly because I sympathized with her attitude toward her boyfriend and the detective… I also liked how personal recollections interweave with her present day perspective. Jess’ memories slip easily into her present day narrative, just as one might slip into a daydream while folding laundry. I liked the role Jess’s father, plays in the story.

The Bottom Line: Don’t read this for the whodunit side of the story. Read it for the considered exploration of ‘the myth of social heroism’ and the complicated relationships that factor into it.

Further Reading: