Book Review: The Conjoined, Jen Sookfong Lee (2016)

September 16th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“I come from a family of psychopaths.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and child abuse. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to be as vague as possible.)

She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. […]

Ginny picked up the receiver. She might as well call. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that someone would understand.

It was easy to say My childhood was normal. It was the sort of thing people say when they want to deflect attention, or when it was the most polite way to explain that you grew up with privilege, that your past wasn’t dotted with evictions and coupons and beatings from a father who could never keep a job. It was what Jessica always said, even though she knew this statement couldn’t possibly be true for anyone.

Here are three things you should know about The Conjoined:

1. The book’s Little Red Riding Hood /The Handmaid’s Tale– inspired cover bears little relation to the story.

2. There are no conjoined twins in this book.

3. It’s still a pretty good read anyway, unsatisfying ending excluded.

About a month after losing her mother Donna to cancer, twenty-eight-year-old Jessica Campbell is helping her father Gerry sort through the detritus of their decades-long marriage when they make a truly horrifying discovery. Amid Ziplock bags stuffed with frostbitten bison meat, Gerry finds the bodies of two (very human) girls stashed in his wife’s basement freezers. (I own two chest freezers, and the roomier models are most definitely large enough to accommodate the body of a teenage girl. Don’t worry; you’ll only find homegrown apples and cases of Daiya cheese in my freezers.) The police are summoned straightaway, reopening an investigation into an eighteen-year-old mystery: whatever happened to Jamie and Casey Cheng?

Through most of Jessica’s childhood (and beyond), Donna volunteered as a foster mother to countless wayward children. While most only stayed a few days or weeks before moving on to their permanent, adoptive homes, some placements proved more difficult. Jamie and Casey Cheng were Donna’s greatest challenge: they skipped school, stole money, talked back, ran away, and were verbally and physically abusive. But just as suddenly as they appeared, they vanished. The police’s original investigation (if you can call it that) was brief; they assumed the girls ran away, successfully this time. After all, isn’t that what “those” kids – the poor, the unwanted, the abused and neglected – do?

Jessica, now a social worker herself, had long since forgotten about Jamie and Casey. Until now. As she investigates their lives and deaths, memories of that tumultuous month in the autumn of 1988 come flooding back. Yet to unravel the mystery, Jessica must go back further still: to Donna’s own troubled childhood, which arguably informed her interactions with her foster kids.

Alternating between the past and the present, The Conjoined operates on two levels. Most obviously, it’s a murder mystery; yet the personal is also political, as Lee uses the plot to explore much larger social issues: racism, classism, poverty, assimilation, and education, and the ways these converge in social work to create a system that’s inherently unfair and often ineffective (at best; actively harmful at worst).

** Caution: Spoilers ahead! **

This is best accomplished, I think, in the story of Jamie and Casey, who should never have been removed from their mother’s care. While horrible things did indeed happen on her watch, Bill and Wayne were almost exclusively at fault. Locking up both men and/or issuing restraining orders and/or mandatory counseling would have been a more productive way of dealing with the abuse. (Was a sexual relationship between a 37-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl really legal in Vancouver circa 1988? Could that be right? Egads!) Not to mention, maybe offer Ginny some financial assistance or child care so she needn’t leave them alone overnight? The lady works two jobs, ferchrissakes! Criminalizing poverty is ineffectual and inhumane. Once they were placed with Donna and began acting out, the system failed them (and the Campbells) further by not offering the proper support. In this context, it’s not hard to imagine how such a tragic ending might have come about.

Lee also uses Jessica’s relationships with Donna and her boyfriend Trevor to interrogate “the myth of social heroism” (to borrow from the back matter), albeit with less success. Let’s start with mom. Jessica became a social worker mostly to make her mother happy; had mom been a pediatrician, Jess probably would have gone to medical school. While the pressure to meet parental expectations is a fertile topic, I don’t really think it furthered Lee’s social commentary.

Ditto: Trevor, who is indeed a pill – but not because he has a caring (read: feminine) job, can’t fix the garbage disposal, or likes vegetarian chili and soy cheese. (Real men eat meat? What is this, 1956?) Rather, he’s an insufferable know-it-all who tries to force his beliefs on others, including in their most vulnerable times of need. For example, when Jess told him that Donna had chosen to stop chemo and die on her own terms, he was less than supportive. (“You mean she’s giving up?”) You’re in a caring profession, f’in act like it! He’s also the kind of guy who insists that, if you’re not spending 110% of your time helping others, you’re part of the problem. Burnout? That’s for rich white chicks!

Anyway, the relationship stuff just felt a little muddled and not as coherent as Jamie and Casey’s ordeal – and, later, Donna’s own childhood trauma, which can also be read as a system-wide failure. Devin was a sexual predator in training and, while Elizabeth’s reluctance to seek help – lest Devin wind up in an institution – is understandable, her decision exposed another child to his behavior, which is simply unforgivable.

** End of spoilers. **

The murder mystery proved much more compelling and readable; I devoured most of it in just a few sittings. So it was a huge disappointment when I reached the end, only to find … nada. There is zero resolution to be found here, not even a hint at one or two possibilities. Heck, we don’t even get the autopsy results to see how the girls died! Despite the veritable buffet of suspects, the assumption remains that Donna killed them, but we’re no closer to knowing for sure than we were at the story’s outset. Keeping your readers guessing is one thing, but … this ending seriously pissed me off. At least give us a hint, yo!

3.5 stars. During my reading, I waffled back and forth on rounding it up to four or down to three, but the unsatisfying ending cinched it for me.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. the Chengs – the family at the center of this story – are Chinese and live in/on the outskirts of Vancouver’s Chinatown. (Bill immigrated to Canada as a boy, but I’m not sure about Ginny; she may or may not be a native-born Canadian.) Jamie and Casey’s mother Ginny dropped out of high school after her father died; she got a job to help her mom out and has been working nonstop ever since. Their father Bill is also a high school dropout; he’s been struggling with unemployment, alcoholism, and his temper. The last time he was fired – for hitting his foreman – Ginny kicked him out of the house, but he still comes by at night to see Jamie and Casey. It’s under his watch that 14-year-old Casey enters into a sexual relationship with his 37-year-old friend Wayne Chow. I’d like to call this rape, but apparently the age of consent in 1988 Vancouver was 14? But fuck that noise, it was rape and it was wrong and Wayne damn well knew it (as we can see in his internal monologues). When Bill finds out, he assaults Wayne; kicks and stomps on Casey’s torso to induce a miscarriage; and punches Jamie when she tries to intervene.

Jamie and Casey are removed from Ginny’s care and placed in a foster home: first at the Tindalls’, where the foster boys mistreat them (though it’s not clear how), then at the Campbells’. They girls try to run away once, after a few weeks, but are raped by a group of three men, strangers they encounter on the street. They reluctantly return to Donna’s house, only to act out after the trauma: they skip school, talk back, steal, and even verbally and physically assault their foster mom. Donna eventually snaps (thanks to her own traumatic childhood) and mistreats them by forcing them to eat all the food in the fridge, until they vomit, and then eat some more. After about a month the girls disappear. Eighteen years later, Donna dies of cancer. As Jess and Gerry are going through Donna’s belongings, they discover the girls’ bodies, stuffed in the bottom of the basement freezers. The assumption is that Donna killed them, but we never find out for sure.

Beth’s husband left her for another woman, abandoning her and their twins, Donna and Devin. At the age of eight, Devin began exhibiting troubling sexual behaviors. One morning, after Beth had fallen asleep with him overnight, he pretended to be asleep while masturbating – and he held onto her hand and then nightgown so she couldn’t leave. Beth considered seeking professional help, but feared that the authorities would have him institutionalized. Instead, she vowed to keep him at home where she could watch him 24/7.

By the age of ten, Devin’s behavior had escalated: he burst into the bathroom when Donna was showering and pinched her breasts and genitals. It was a rainy night, and Donna chased him out onto the back patio, where Devin slipped and fell on the wet rocks. Rather than grab his hand and save him from falling off the cliff and into the sea, Donna kicked his chest. Or at least Beth thinks she saw this; either way, she blamed Donna for Devin’s death for the rest of her life.

One of Jess’s friends and colleagues is named Parminder. She helps Jess investigate Jamie and Casey and also offers her a place to crash after she dumps Trevor.

Animal-friendly elements: Nope. Jessica is unhappy in her long-term relationship with Trevor, a fellow social worker. To be fair, he is a total pill – for example, when Jess’s mom Donna decided to stop chemotherapy and die on her own terms, he was less than supportive (“You mean she’s giving up?”) – yet Jess constantly calls his masculinity into question, often in the grossest, most anti-feminist way possible. He’s not a “real man” because he has a caring job, asks her what she wants during sex, can’t fix appliances … and eats soy cheese and vegetarian chili. (“And for future reference, I hate vegetarian chilli. Eat a hot dog, for fuck’s sake.”) What is this, 1956?


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