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:

Family Reads: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. 

Why Dad chose this book: It was in my to read on December 25 (WPF review?) and then it was picked for CBC Books group read for June with a high rating so I wanted to try it, also because it has high aboriginal content which I have a special interest in. I reserved the ebook but I wanted to follow along with the group and didn’t want to wait, so I had my bookstore daughter buy it for me.

Dad gives this book 4.5 stars and I give it 4 stars. Here’s our thoughts on how this story kept us interested, even though it didn’t sound too exciting based on the back description.

He wondered how time worked on a person. He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void. (232)

When Dad and I tried to summarize this book to each other, we agreed we would have a hard time convincing someone Medicine Walk isn’t as dull as we made it sound. We both enjoyed the steady pacing and the considered prose. I also liked the dialogue, which has a natural cadence and dialect that conveys a stronger sense of character. Wagamese writes in a calm tone while still building anticipation in a tale that doesn’t have a lot of hills and valleys. The story fills you with wonder about the questions it proposes without being melodramatic.

At times the plot surprised us. Dad never expected the connection between the old man and Eldon. I didn’t expect Eldon’s heartbreaking war story or that he didn’t try to find his mother. We both struggled to sympathize with certain characters (Dad with Eldon, me with Franklin’s mother). Even though a large part of this is Eldon telling his story, it’s still hard to understand without having gone through the same experiences. We agreed it can be too easy to judge people. I also thought this was quite a man’s story, as Franklin’s mother is a key but undeveloped character who has no story of her own. The only named characters are Franklin and Eldon; this is really their story.

As we talked about the book, Dad searched for reviews on his iPad. He thought these descriptions hit the nail on the head:

To be alive is to be vulnerable to the myriad shocks and disappointments of the human condition, but Medicine Walk is also testament to the redemptive power of love and compassion. (Globe and Mail)

For Frank, a “hunt was a process.” And so is the way Wagamese pursues his story: biding his time, never rushing, calibrating each word so carefully that he too never seems to waste a shot. But he isn’t after the kill. Rather, it’s something more complicated — finding a way to honor or at least acknowledge a life ill-lived as it enters its final bitter days. (NYT)

If you handed us this book five years and asked if we thought we would enjoy it, we both would have said no. Now, though, we find we have a deeper appreciation for realistic stories about human relationships Medicine Walk is a particularly fine example of the genre.  

Have you read any works by Richard Wagamese? Are there any similar stories by Indigenous authors you would recommend?
 

Brief Thoughts: In The House on The Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods tells the story of a newly married couple who take up a lonely existence in the title’s mythical location.In this blank and barren plot, far from the world they’ve known, they mean to start a family. But every pregnancy fails, and as their grief swells, the husband – a hot-tempered and impatient fisherman and trapper – attempts to prove his dominion in other ways, emptying both the lake and the woods of their many beasts. As the years pass, the wife changes, too; her powerful voice sings new objects into being, including a threatening moon hung above their house, its doomed weight already slowly falling, bending the now star-less sky. (jacket description)

  • The cover, description, and strong of praise of this book drew me to it. The back of the book includes quotes such as “The story’s ferocity is matched by Matt Bell’s glorious sentences: sinuous and darkly magical, they are taproots of the strange.” and “This book, which will grip you in an otherworldly trance, reads like something divined from tea leaves or translated from a charcoal cipher on a cave wall”. Unfortunately, I didn’t get those feelings. The book fell short for me, though I can see where it would appeal to some. Not quite my type of mystical prose, though.
  • The third page lets you know what you’re actually getting into. I read the paragraph quoted below, thought “Whoa wait did that actually just happen?” and had to go back to reread it. At that point I had to take a 24 hour break to reset my expectations for this book (despite all the clues, I thought it was going to be more like Gaiman or Valente).
    • Then no kiss at all, but something else, some compulsion that even then I knew was wrong but could not help, so strong was my sadness, so sudden my desire: Into my body I partook what my wife’s had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole – its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to fit slide farther in without the use of teeth – and I imagined perhaps that I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow. (6)

  • When I tried to describe this scene to my Mom, I realized it sounds a lot crazier than it reads – “This guy eats his miscarried child and then he calls it the fingerling and it gives him bad ideas.” (Her response: “I don’t want to hear anymore about that book.”). The prose is, in some sense, very poetic. There’s a lot of dancing around actual actions.
  • I felt a bit squirmy awkward at the beginning that the man is already so opposed to his wife. I hoped to their relationship when it was fresh and loving. The man is an unlikable character (which is usually neither here nor there but he was the dominant character out of just a few and I didn’t enjoy spending so much time in his head). I couldn’t get over his attitude towards his wife.
  • “I dug more holes, and because I could not dig a hole without wanting for something to put in it, for the first time I began to kill what I did not intend to use: In one hole I buried a muskrat and in another a rabbit and in another a wrench-necked goose, caught by my own hands after it squawked me away from its clutch of goslings, themselves doomed beneath my frustrated heels” (43).

  • I seriously considered giving up around the halfway point. The man and the fingerling and their actions were beginning to bore me. Somehow, I persevered.
  • I wondered how the story could fill a whole novel. I certainly got a short story/novella vibe from it. I still wondered that by the end.
  • The atmosphere (and the endless cottage) brought to mind House of Leaves at times.
  • The Bottom Line: Two stars for the prose that kept me reading (also driven by my curiosity of whether something more was going to happen), but I really should have DNF’d at that halfway point.

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Format/Source: Paperback/Purchased
Published: March 2016
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton 
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Short stories (literary/magical realism)
Why I Read: Favourite author
Read If You: Like new and fresh short stories, with a hint of the surreal about them
Rating★★★★½ 
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is Helen Oyeyemi’s debut short story collection. The book contains a number of excellent tales that demonstrate her maturing talent. Her prose exemplifies this growth best. This is the first time I’ve followed a young author’s works as they are published, and been able to experience the evolution of their writing. White is for Witching (which Oyeyemi published in 2009 at 25 years old) will always be my favourite Oyeyemi tale, but a distinct difference exists between that story and the ones in WINYINY. I feel that Oyeyemi’s prose has become even more of what it was – she has grown into her style (and will hopefully continue growing).

Mr. Fox is also, to some extent, a ‘short story’ collection. Mr. Fox‘s stories strongly connect through an overarching storyline and characters. WINYINY‘s stories do connect, but in a far looser manner. Some characters who feature in their own story may receive a brief mention in another. My understanding of WINYINY will likely benefit from rereading – for the individual stories themselves, and for how they connect together.Overall, I enjoyed WINYINY a lot more than Mr. Fox. I didn’t find myself enjoying any story less than the others.

Oyeyemi’s vivid creativity impresses me. I could hardly begin to imagine stories like the ones she pens. Her writing doesn’t usually take grand or unexpected turns. Her creativity exists in something more refined than that, little details or small turns in action that truly fuel the story. I thought about giving an example, but that spoils the effect. All the stories in WINYINY exemplify that creativity.  It imbues her stories with something refreshing, allowing their reader to feel like they’ve experienced something new (at least for this reader of few short stories).

All of Oyeyemi’s works demonstrate diversity, and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),  the ‘diverse’ aspects of the character’s feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity.

On that note… If you’re familiar with Boy, Snow, Bird, you may recall the problematic portrayal of a trans character. This collection contains one minor trans character in “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”, whom I identified mostly from this statement: “Pepper wasn’t always on the surface, but whether [Day] was with Pepper as Pepper or Pepper as Michael, Day had found one she’d always be young with […]”. Day initially meets and dates Michael, who transitions to Pepper. This transition is not a major plot point or a catalyst for another character’s development. I think Pepper’s portrayal is realistic and not transphobic, but I would be interested to hear a trans person’s opinion on the portrayal of a trans character in this story vs in Boy, Snow, Bird.

The Bottom Line: Though I understand Oyeyemi’s work is not for everyone, I recommend this collection for those who are curious about her writing. Her creativity and prose are at their strongest in the stories of this collection.

Further Reading:

Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Author: Maggie Mitchell
Title: Pretty Is
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
Published: 7 July 2015
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction + dash of thriller
Why I Read: Pretty cover, gripping premise
Read If You’re: Intrigued by the copy description
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

The summer precocious Lois and pretty Carly May were twelve years old, they were kidnapped, driven across the country, and held in a cabin in the woods for two months by a charismatic stranger. Nearly twenty years later, Lois has become a professor, teaching British literature at a small college in upstate New York, and Carly May is an actress in Los Angeles, drinking too much and struggling to revive her career. When a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more, they must face the public exposure of their secret history and confront the dark longings and unspeakable truths that haunt them still. Maggie Mitchell’s Pretty Is beautifully defies ripped-from-the-headlines crime story expectations and announces the debut of a masterful new storytelling talent.

I can’t remember how this book came on my radar, but it was some months ago. Every now and then I check NetGalley to see if books on my ‘upcoming publication’ shelf are available. I was very excited when this one finally showed up!

I like many aspects of this novel. I like the prose and the style of narrative. Mitchell writes with a strong voice and her prose injects the story with tension. The first page hooked me. The alternating perspectives of Lois and Carly May balance each other well. I like how it’s a story about stories within stories and about blurring the line between fiction, non-fiction and our own personal lives. I also enjoyed the plot. After Lois is reunited with her parents:

 They could not sit on the couch because Carly was sprawled out beside me; instead, awkwardly, they reached their thin, tanned arms out to me, inviting me to stand and be embraced. Which I did, automatically; but I found no comfort. Their arms felt insubstantial, their eyes held too many questions I knew they’d never be able to ask, their fear was wordless and stiff. (18%)

The plot developed in a direction I wasn’t at all anticipating. When I read the blurb – “a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more” – I assumed that the story of their kidnapping was widely known, that someone decided to profit off their story without their involvement, and they reconnect through some sort of entanglement with that. I found the actual plot more intriguing and creative than that. I liked that the book description didn’t give it away. I don’t like descriptions that describe a major plot point that doesn’t happen until 100+ pages in the novel. Pretty Is‘s major premise is established 6% in, but I still appreciated that it came as a surprise. The plot is built on some pretty outrageous coincidences that you know would never happen in real life, but well-written fiction like this allows makes it believable. I’d say this novel is plot driven, but the characters are central to the plot’s success – does the plot make the characters or do the characters make the plot?

Please note: This paragraph contains minor spoilers! Read at your own risk.  I noticed two points made by other reviewers that I disagree with. One is that Lois’ behavior seems unnatural or out of character. Lois’ sanity is called into question by at least herself, Carly May and Sean. (Quote from Carly May: “Only one of us can be batshit crazy, I tell myself. I have a sneaking sort of feeling that Lois – rational, orderly Lois – might have claimed that role” [83%]). I didn’t question it while reading – in fact, I wondered why everyone was thinking she was crazy. I’m terrible with unreliable narrators because I take everything they say at face value. When Lois was speaking, I though, ‘Yeah, you’re right’, but in retrospect, how she deals with her creepy stalker is definitely not right. I don’t think this is poor writing – having Lois, an otherwise solid woman, acting ‘out of character’ with her stalker. I think it shows that she is a little bit off and shows how the kidnapping affected her. The second point is that the conclusion is abrupt and/or unsatisfying. I dislike such conclusions, but I found Pretty Is‘s conclusion to be neither of those things. I had all the answers I wanted, and I was satisfied with where the characters ended up.There is a spike in the ‘thrills’, but I was totally absorbed and carried along all the ups and downs it brought.

In genre above, I labeled this book ‘literary fiction + dash of thriller’. Another person might label it ‘chick lit thriller’ or ‘contemporary’. What genre is this book?! Who decides genres, anyhow? Are they useful to anyone beyond the person doing the labelling? I’ve learned over the past years the stories I love the most can be found in the general fiction of a bookstore or library, even though they often have strong touches of fantasy or terror. For me, Pretty Is feels ‘literary’ with a hint of thriller – just a hint; I wouldn’t call it ‘a thriller’, it’s just the nature of part of the plot. Then again, maybe it’s because I was so focused on the ‘literary fiction’ parts of the book that I can’t accept it’s more of a thriller, like how I can’t imagine Paper Towns as a ‘mystery’. I’m sure there are people who would laugh at me calling this book ‘literary’. Maybe it’s just contemporary fiction? What’s the difference between the two, anyhow? (Says the English major…) I do use the two labels separately here on my blog, but they really just follow my own impression of the book… I don’t know what the actual definitions or differences between the two terms are. Conclusion: Labels can be as tricky as ratings when describing books!

The Bottom Line: If the plot intrigues you at all, give it a go. Much better than the few other after kidnapping stories I’ve read, this would be a great read to curl up with during an evening at the cottage.

Further Reading: