‘The Conjoined’ by Jen Sookfong Lee
It is 2016, and social worker Jessica is grieving the loss of her mother, Donna. In addition to her daughter, the saintly Donna left behind a loving husband, a kitchen cupboard full of unusable ingredients to remind them of her “muddy and sticky” cooking, closets full of frumpy-fabulous clothes that her daughter will eventually borrow…and the bodies of two girls who went missing 28 years earlier, packed away in the deep freezers in her basement.
This macabre discovery lies at the centre of Vancouver writer Jen Sookfong Lee’s fourth novel. The Conjoined follows Jessica as she attempts to learn the whole story of what happened in the last days of the lives of these two no-longer-missing kids, and to reconcile the loving memories of a wonderful mother with the evidence that suggests she was a murderer. A series of flashbacks and Jessica’s present-day investigations gradually reveal some of the events surrounding the deaths of Casey and Jamie Cheng in 1988.
The Conjoined handles some touchy topics quite deftly. Most salient is the way in which Sookfong Lee presents the effects of social workers on the lives of children and families: “The children stayed or they went back into care. Sometimes they went to mental health units or, worse, the youth detention centre. Nothing was different.” While at times Sookfong Lee’s protagonist can seem somewhat flat, Jessica’s experiences and existential qualms about the good she may or may not be doing as a social worker in a city full of social divisions and poverty are vivid. Likewise, the book’s navigation of youth sexuality refuses to be dismissive. Though readers may find 14-year-old Casey’s declarations of love for her much older boyfriend Wayne shocking or trifling (or both), Sookfong Lee (whose earlier novel, Shelter, was written for young adults) articulates her characters’ messy situations and complicated perspectives in a way that is honest and unflinching.
There are many ways in which The Conjoined fits neatly into the generic categories of mystery or suspense fiction. A principal pleasure of this book is the anticipation of seeing what has been obscured: beginning with the discovery of the bodies, the protagonist follows clues and intuitions to learn what “really” happened. And there is a whiff of the sensational voyeurism of pulp fiction here too. The interest lies not only in the fact that two girls died, but in the promise and then delivery of the violence and sex that surrounded their deaths. These lurk as implications in the text, merely conjecture until, chapter by chapter, they are confirmed as traumatic and eventually tragic realities. Sookfong Lee’s treatment of the most shocking incidents in The Conjoined is far from salacious, but her narrative procedure relies on our hunger for details that, perhaps, we are better off not knowing.
And it is possible she leaves us guessing a bit too much. Though the novel offers some kinds of resolution, for a book that relies so heavily on a procedure of successive narrative revelations, readers drawn in by these mystery-novel tropes may be disappointed to never learn exactly what happened to the girls. The whodunit is not her only significant elision. Many of the character-defining moments of the book are obscured either because Sookfong Lee makes the information unavailable to her cast (as in the partial account of the death of Donna’s brother) or chooses a fade-to-black technique to hide those scenes from the reader (as in the first time Casey and Jamie run away). This subversion of expectations is quite usual for literary fiction, but The Conjoined lacks much of the other payoffs that literary fiction usually offers: rich imagery, artful prose style, fresh, deeply explored characters. For a novel that relies so heavily on the management of the reader’s knowledge and the deployment of ambiguities to create tension and release, the final balance between these is unsatisfying, and undercuts a central interest of the work.
Sookfong Lee’s abilities as a story builder do elevate the material, though. If the promise of sex and violence keeps the pages turning, it is her complex networks of relationships and situations, in which each character’s personal baggage seems to echo or invert the next, in which traumas and desires seem to double and recombine from generation to generation, from family to family, from romance to romance – it is this map of human connections that offers the novel’s greatest reward. Sookfong Lee shows us that people are “mashed up, asymmetrical,” made up of “everything” we have ever “touched or eaten or loved or despised.” If life is messy, it is because we are all conjoined, in all directions.
ECW Press | 300 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1770412842