The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee
Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock
There are two dead girls curled in the giant chest freezers in Jessica Campbell's childhood home. It's an irresistible, inexplicable decades-old mystery – one that hooks the reader from the very first pages of Jen Sookfong Lee's novel The Conjoined.
Jessica and her father are in the process of sorting through her dead mother's things when they find the delicate, frozen bodies in the basement, and Jessica immediately recognises the girls as Casey and Jamie Cheng, two of the family's foster children who were marked down as runaways in 1988. For more than twenty years, no one has been able to find out why the sisters disappeared, or where they went. But their discovery - paired with the recent death of Jessica's mother - leaves more questions than answers. This is doubly true for Jessica, who became a social worker to follow in her mother's compassionate footsteps - a figure who is now the centre of a murder investigation.
Torn apart by conflicting grief, Jessica sets out on a investigation of her own – into the family history of the wild and beautiful Cheng sisters, into her shadowy and spiteful family history, and finally into the ways these murders reverberate in present-day Vancouver and Jessica's own life. We are led to believe that the title refers to the sisters and their shared fate, but as the narrative continues it becomes clear the novel is a study in connection – the things shared deeply and subtly within families, across generations, and even across racial and economic divides. The backdrop of contemporary Vancouver is a shared landscape tinged with shared tragedy and fear, but also of passion, joy, and freedom.
On the surface, The Conjoined sounds like a murder mystery, and yet the novel sturdily resists going in this obvious direction. Instead, Sookfong Lee weaves an intricate and unsettling narrative about identity by pairing seemingly disparate stories into a single work which resists the traditional form of a novel in a way which echoes the messy complexity of real life.
The reader and Jessica alike learn that they cannot trust assumptions, and that anything resembling obvious truth may not extend past a surface level. Sookfong Lee introduces seemingly cliché characters and plot points only to whisk obvious choices conclusions out of reach. As a result, the novel is fresh, and frank, and infuriating - a narrative which resists closure and demands compassion.
The Conjoined is published by ECW Press.