‘The Conjoined’ by Jen Sookfong Lee

The ConjoinedReviewed by Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

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



  • Poetry and Pleasure

    By Joanne Epp

    “I’m having a lot of fun reading poetry these days,” said the owner of a local coffee shop. MORE >


  • 'Fluid communities': An Interview with Katherena Vermette

    biopic04By Ariel Gordon

    Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer based in Winnipeg. Her first book, North End Love Songs (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 2012), won the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry and was the 2015 selection for the Winnipeg Public Library’s provincial book club, On the Same Page. MORE >

New Work

  • 'Asset Mapping in Stoop City'

    By Kristyn Dunnion

    Sheela rocks heel toe, heel toe, making her hair swing, she’s so mad. She’s kicked out of the donut shop, who cares, she’s sick of that fucking place, that guy wants to call the cops let him. Loser. And who cares, now she’s officially off the fucking property line, okay, she’s on the public property sidewalk. MORE >


  • Excerpt from 'The Best Kind of People'

    By Zoe Whittall

    Jimmy and Sadie sat on the loveseat, their heads still wet with lake water. Jimmy held on to Sadie’s hand the way he had on the Cyclone in the summer. A female police officer in uniform sat across from them on the La-Z-Boy, right leg propped on her left knee like a table, and opened up a spiral-bound notebook. MORE >

Book Reviews

  • ‘An Indoor Kind of Girl’ by Frankie Barnet

    51ea7on1igl-_sx353_bo1204203200_Reviewed by Tom Ingram

    In An Indoor Kind of Girl, a collection of short stories by Montreal-based writer Frankie Barnet, we encounter a pessimistic voice, a bleak vision of the future, and characters who seem to sleepwalk through their precarious situations, perfectly suited to the millennial generation’s present mood of cynicism and disillusionment. MORE >

  • ‘Baloney’ by Maxime Raymond Bock

    41sdw6voadl-_sx307_bo1204203200_Reviewed by Ben Wood

    The English reception of Quebec writer Maxime Raymond Bock’s work may be proof that two negatives can in fact make a positive. Not only is he a writer from Canada, already a strike of irrelevancy, but is writing from and about Quebec—the nation within a nation. MORE >

  • ‘Centring The Margins: Essays and Reviews’ by Jeff Bursey

    centring-coverReviewed by Spencer Gordon

    Book reviews in Canada are, like most literary events in this country, the cause of much conflict and anxiety amongst Canadian writers. MORE >

  • ‘Paper Teeth’ by Lauralyn Chow


    Reviewed by Keith Cadieux

    Narratives that deal with a minority or immigrant experience can be tricky. Is the focus on connecting to that minority audience, presenting a narrative to which they might more fully relate? Or is the intent to illuminate those experiences for the majority audience, in Canada’s case the middle-class white audience? A combination of the two, perhaps? Or maybe neither of these possibilities.   MORE >

  • ‘13 Ways of Looking At A Fat Girl’ by Mona Awad

    511vrw87hl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Reviewed by Phoebe Wang

    The creation of an unlikeable female narrator takes a special kind of recklessness, but Mona Awad goes further by writing a central protagonist who is unlikeable even to herself. MORE >