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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January…

After the three of us recovered from our extended colds, January turned out to be a pretty good month around here.

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Pearl is now 23 months! Her hair is long enough that it occasionally gets in her eyes, she is currently getting a new tooth, and she is full of energy.

We stayed away from most of our usual toddler groups and drop-ins because we didn’t want to spread our germs around and so we ended up spending a lot of time outdoors, exploring the forest nearby and playing at the local parks.
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When the new year began, I made a list of a few goals for myself and while I haven’t worked out five times a week (probably not a realistic goal anyway), focusing on a few small changes have made a big difference in my attitude. Lots of outdoor time is key for both Pearl and I and makes our days more interesting.

Another of my goals was to spend less time on-line, especially before bed. I always have a book (or three) on the go so it’s a simple switch to close the computer and read inside. As well, I’ve stayed away from Facebook all month and I feel like that’s made a difference too. My Facebook feed is just too full of pregnancies and babies and while I normally love that I felt that I needed to step away for a while. I’ve been surprised at how good it’s felt for my own well-being.

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Pearl and I went on a fun adventure, just the two of us. We took a day trip into Vancouver, walking on the ferry and spending the day downtown. It was rainy and busy but we had a blast and I can’t wait to try it again when the weather’s better. We walked around a lot (her mostly in her stroller), Pearl had her first drink at Starbucks (steamed milk), and we rode the SeaBus just for fun (Pearl’s first time).

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Recently, Pearl had an appointment with the speech therapist. At her 18-month check-up, she wasn’t quite hitting the amount of words they expected her to have at that age (around 20) so we went on a wait list for speech therapy. By the time the therapist contacted me, Pearl had added a lot of words to her vocabulary; Peter and I estimate she has about 50 words now. It didn’t seem like it would do any harm to have her assessed by a professional though and to see if there was anyway we could help her along. I wasn’t sure how it would go since Pearl isn’t always the most outgoing around strangers. The therapist was awesome though, having a tea party with Pearl and bringing out lots of toys to engage her, all while surreptitiously jotting down her observations.

In the end, our suspicions were confirmed – Pearl is totally fine! It’s been apparent that she understands what we’re saying, including multi-step ideas (like, “Go get your boots and put them on”) and she’s adding new words to her speech everyday. She’s simply learning at her own pace and that’s okay! Just this past week or so she’s begun putting two words together to form sentences (“Hi mum!). I’m still glad that I took advantage of the appointment, plus I learned a little more about how to aid her speech development along. I can’t wait to hear what she says next!

Our Summer So Far

Our summer got off to a hectic start and things are just beginning to settle down again.

At the tail end of June, we headed to the Okanagan for a wedding. We left directly after Peter got off work on the Friday and drove straight, taking the Coquihalla Highway. (Well, one stop of burgers at Five Guys in Chilliwack, in the pouring rain. I’ll be honest, I don’t miss living there but I do like Five Guys.) We arrived in Okanagan Falls way past Pearl’s bedtime to discover that the hotel we were staying at was above a bar. Pro-parenting tip: Don’t stay in a hotel above a bar with your baby. Rough night.

Fortunately, the next morning we found an awesome diner across the street and made our way to the lake-beach a few blocks away.

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The beach (and the playground) was more mud than sand but there was also a splash pad where Pearl had a blast running through water and kicking the spray. Then we all went back to the hotel and had naps before the wedding.

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This is the only picture I took of this beautiful, garden wedding but others caught some pictures of the three of us so I hope to share a couple soon (Along with the conclusion of my 30 Day Dress Challenge. I know, I know.) The weather was perfect and the ceremony and reception were held in a lovely garden with games planned in between. The bride and groom had a lot of thoughtful touches – including goodie bags for the kids!

After breakfast the next morning, we headed home. We opted the more scenic, southern route, which took us through several small towns along the way.

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Our original plan was to take our time on the way back and stop in a few spots. But when Pearl fell asleep leaving Penticton we decided to just keep driving. Of course, you can’t leave the Okanagan in the summertime without fresh fruit so we did make a lightning quick stop at a fruit stand in Keremeos for blueberries and cherries.

Pearl woke up as we drove through Manning Park so we stopped for a late picnic lunch and to look at ground squirrels.

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An important feature of every childhood road trip through British Columbia.

An important feature of every childhood road trip through British Columbia.

We made it to the ferry terminal with enough time for an ice cream break before getting on the boat (Pearl’s second time. She’s a fan.) and then home and to bed where we all slept through the night.

We had a few days of work and home time and Canada Day.

Last week, Peter was away for a few days so I took Pearl into Vancouver. She had her latest check-up at Children’s Hospital and we stayed with family for two nights and got to catch up with friends.

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Like these two who I’ve been friends with since I was seven years old! Pearl was definitely past her bed time here but she did really well the whole week and got to hang out with all of her cousins.

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I lived in Vancouver for fifteen years but four years in a small town on the Sunshine Coast mean that I’m not quite used to the hustle and bustle of the big city anymore. I’d also forgotten that smiling at and greeting people on the street or on public transit is not normal. I used our stroller a lot but for busier locations, the Ergo was great for our introverted little girl.

Our hospital visit went well. I’ve accepted that returning to Children’s Hospital will always be filled with emotions for me and so I was more prepared for it this time. Pearl’s test results on her kidneys, while not perfect, were good and a slight improvement on last autumn’s. Her kidney function is good and one is almost completely normal now. Most importantly, Pearl continues to be symptom-free from her hydronephrosis. I met with the renal specialist who said there’s no reason to do surgery now or, most likely, ever and we’ll simply continue to monitor her kidneys.

Pearl and I headed home on Thursday, arriving home shortly after Peter. And so, this week, our summer begins in earnest. I think it’s going to look like this:

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And some of this:

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And a whole lot of other fun!

Waiting…

The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love. He will rejoice over you with singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

Thank you doesn’t seem like a big enough response to the love I received after my last post. But it’s all I can say so – Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for the comments, the e-mails, the texts, the love, the prayers. Thank you for letting us know that we are not alone. Thank you for helping me feel so loved this week. I am so thankful.

I’m thankful that my health is good. That I’m able to walk and move around rather than have to be on bed rest. I’m thankful that our baby continues to grow and kick within me. I love feeling those not-so-little movements. In-utero baby hiccups are the weirdest but coolest things ever and baby seems to get them at least once a day lately. I’m thankful that the doctor I met with yesterday seems hopeful for our baby. I’m thankful for the time she took to explain medical things to me, to answer my questions. I’m thankful for her honesty and her optimism. I’m thankful that our baby will have top notch medical care as soon as it’s needed. We don’t quite know what that will look like but it’s there and I know how fortunate we are to live in a country where we have access to terrific neonatal care.

I stayed with my brother at the start of this week and Baby got some serious loving from its big cousins. Saying good night involved two hugs – one for me, one for the baby. My nephew – who is the sweetest 7-year-old you could ever hope to meet – made me this:

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That’s a clay porridge pot with milk jug and sugar bowl. And three bowls – two for Peter and I and one little one for the Baby. This baby’s going to get a lot of squishy hugs and kisses when it arrives.

I’ve been struggling with the disappointment of not getting to have our baby in our own town. While I know that this is really minor in the larger scheme of things, it’s still something I’m struggling to let go of. I was looking forward to being in my own home for the first part of labour. To walking the trails near our house. To time spent waiting in the places we live and love. And instead I’m in this big, busy city. And I love this city but it felt dirty and chaotic and just not part of the plan.

Yesterday evening I walked through my parents’ neighbourhood to meet a friend for coffee. It was not quite dusk. Bikes whizzed past me in the street and the last stragglers headed home from the local elementary school. All along the sidewalks and in people’s yards, I noticed that the crocuses have made their appearance.

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Purple and white, they’re showing up everywhere. The earliest signs of spring.

And I thought, One day, I’ll tell this kid about this week. I’ll tell him or her how we walked the streets of Vancouver together and the crocuses bloomed and the sky turned pink. How I waited and I was afraid but excited. How I kept my fingers crossed to not go into labour until Peter could join me. I’ll try and describe the bins of fruit outside the market, the buds appearing on the trees up and down the street. Even the woman who stole from the tip jar at the coffee shop and was escorted out while yelling, “One dollar! One dollar!” I think it’ll be a good story.

For God is a God who bears. The Son of God bore our flesh, He bore the cross, He bore our sins, thus making atonement for us. In the same way His followers are also called upon to bear. And that is precisely what it means to be a Christian.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from The Cost of Discipleship

Happy Made-Up Long Weekend!

Here in British Columbia, we have this new holiday that we get to celebrate every February. It’s called Family Day. I can’t think of it without being reminded of that Simpsons upside where the card companies make up Love Day.

Nonetheless, it’s a stat holiday in February, so I’m really not complaining.

It’s been uncharacteristically cold around here lately.

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Trust me, that’s cold for our part of the world.

Don’t believe me? This is the ocean in front of our house right now:

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The ocean is frozen.

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Looking down from the deck. The ocean is frozen.

Also frozen – Trout Lake, which is located not far from us. (Does every town in Canada have a Trout Lake?) So this weekend (after a very productive Saturday round of errand-running) Peter and I were driving home along the highway and we saw this sight:

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Someone ice skating on Trout Lake. Within seconds, Peter had pulled over the car and we were gingerly stepping onto the ice ourselves.

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That’s a first for me. I finally feel like a real Canadian!

To continue our Canada celebration, we took advantage of that extra day off and spent some time in the city. I love visiting Vancouver, which is always both familiar and new. After several uninterrupted months here in our small community, the amount of choice you find in Vancouver is delightful and overwhelming.

One of my favourite Vancouver spots:

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Possibly because it’s where these live:

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Not because it’s where these live:

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Blurry selfie.

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Night-time boat trip.

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And the grey Vancouver view from our hotel.

 

A Trip to the City

It looks something like this:

…and this

We ate an amazing restaurant at a restaurant called Fable. It’s located on W. 4th Avenue. The service was awesome; the food was incredible. When it comes to appetizers – try the Canned Tuna. Trust me.

We also ate poutine at a literal hole-in-the-wall called Mean Poutine. I love poutine – french fries, gravy, and cheese curd, what’s not to love? And when you think of Canadian cuisine, what else do you think of?

We found a random place to sit in the middle of the street.

I always enjoy re-visiting my hometown and exploring new corners or old favourites.

I’ve been to a number of beautiful and interesting cities in the world, but Vancouver will always be the most beautiful and interesting to me.

And then I get to come home to this: