Book Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined - Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)
The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

The Conjoined is filled with everything you hope will never happen to your daughter. Although set in the city of Vancouver whose streets and neighbourhoods I recognize, the story seems to exist in some alternate universe where Vancouver is terrible, always dangerous, where nothing good exists, everyone is evil, and you might as well not try to help anyone ever.

The novel begins shortly after Jessica Campbell’s mother Donna has died. Jessica is a burned out social worker (is there any other kind?), striving to live up to her mother, who was a foster parent while Jessica was growing up. Her entire image of Donna is thrown into chaos however when, while sorting through her mother’s home, Jessica and her dad find two bodies in the deep freeze.  In 1988 two sisters, Casey and Jamie, were fostered by the Campbells until they eventually ran away. Or so everyone thought.

The story is an unconventional mystery in that the question is why rather than who. Donna has clearly murdered these girls but what was her motivation? What happened? Jessica attempt to figure out who her mother was, stumbling across some long-held family secrets in the process.

The story also takes us back to 1988 to tell about the sisters, their parents and how they ended up in foster care. I wish the novel had given more from Casey and Jamie’s perspective. Although at the centre of the story, we never get to see them as more than victims. Things happen to them and they react but without more knowledge of who they really were, their actions seem strange and unwarranted. Jessica remembers them as aggressive, mean, and violent and, indeed, seems to come to blame them in a way for causing her mother to murder them, even as her investigations stir up some of her own dark memories of her mother. Jessica’s explanations don’t fit what we see of the girls in their pre-foster care story, with their own family though. During Casey and Jamie’s first (real) runaway attempt, something horrific happens to them but the action is so out of the blue and we never see how the girls react and so it ends up feeling false and exploitative.

I might have forgiven the novel all this if it weren’t for the ending. Jessica discovers a secret from her mother’s childhood that is supposed to explain Donna’s life and actions but only led me to believe that Donna was actually a psychopath and always had been. As I said before, The Conjoined seems to exist in some extra dark universe where sometimes good people slip up and commit multiple murders. I don’t buy it and I don’t accept childhood trauma as an excuse for killing children. The fact that Jessica apparently does (along with some personal choices she makes along the way) causes me to wonder if she’s more messed up than the author intended her to be. A little more balance to this novel would have gone a long way.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee”

  1. Pity it didn’t really work because it’s a brilliant premise! Ha – yes, when I read books set in awful, drug-saturated, violent, gang-filled Glasgow, I often wonder if I live in a parallel universe… 😉

    1. I know! I don’t read a lot of mysteries but I liked how this one seemed unique in its premise. Vancouver does have a lot of problems but there was no balance to the book. It’s not a city of psychopaths!

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