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The Conjoined: A Novel by Jen Sookfong Lee
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The Conjoined: A Novel

by Jen Sookfong Lee

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I wanted to read this after reading the synopsis on the back cover that says: "On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery — two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng — troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away."

Based on this, I expected the mother to be a real nasty piece of work. Instead, mom Donna is a gentle, granola, earthy saint of a woman who takes in foster kids. Influenced by her mother, Jessica has become a social worker with a case load of children in crisis and a do-gooder social warrior boyfriend. The story travels back in time to her mother and grandmother's past, the past of the dead girls and their parent's past. Along the way, Jessica discovers that her mother had had a few very dark chapters in her life.

The Conjoined was a compelling read that always made me want to know more, with beautiful writing and interesting characters. Lee captures the feeling of Vancouver very well and makes it a secondary character in the book.

What stopped the novel from being a five star read was that there were a few too many unanswered questions, the main one being that the mystery of the girls' death is unresolved. I understand what Lee was doing artistically, but I think ultimately it lets down the reader.

Recommended for: Readers looking for something a little different, and books that accurately reflect diversity. Readers who need to like or admire the characters in a book might want to skip this one. ( )
  Nickelini | Dec 5, 2016 |
The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee is one of the worst books I have read this year. Jessica Campbell’s mother, Donna has passed away. Jessica and her father, Gerry are clearing out her things (especially all the health food they cannot stand). Gerry goes downstairs to clear out the freezers (you just know what he is going to find) and finds a body. Detective Chris Gallo comes in to lead the investigation and the forensic team soon finds a second body. Jessica suspects that they are two foster children that disappeared years ago. How did they end up in the freezers? Could her mother have killed them? Jessica is determined to get to the bottom of the story. Jessica must look to the past to get answers. Will she be able to find out the truth?

The Conjoined was a strange story with a disappointing ending. The story focuses on Jessica, her search for answers, and her relationship with her boyfriend, Trevor. The novel is disjointed and jumps around making it hard to read. It starts in the present, then goes back in time, then forward, then back. I felt like a yo-yo. I persevered and kept reading though. I get to the end and I am disappointed (upset, disgusted and so much more). The novel has foul language (too much of it) and intimate scenes. I give The Conjoined 1 out of 5 stars (I really did not like it). Jessica was not a likeable character. She is with Trevor, but spends her time fantasizing about Detective Chris Gallo (and drinking too much alcohol). The Conjoined was just not for me. ( )
  Kris_Anderson | Dec 2, 2016 |
"I come from a family of psychopaths."

(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.

http://www.easyvegan.info/2016/09/16/the-conjoined-by-jen-sookfong-lee/ ( )
1 vote smiteme | Jun 23, 2016 |
As Jessica and her father clean out her mother's belongings following her death, they find two dead bodies deep in the basement freezers. Jessica has a good idea who they are: sisters the family fostered 28 years earlier who disappeared and were presumed to have run away. Although the police briefly consider her father a suspect, it becomes clear the mother had to have been the culprit, and thus begins Jessica's exploration of the pasts of not only herself and her mother but of the girls and the people involved in their lives at the time.

This is not a mystery but a novel concerned with emotions and the things that can go wrong in families and in the social welfare system. Jessica is a social worker herself and is living with a rather milquetoast fellow who has been easier to live with than dump. The discovery of the bodies turns her life on its head and makes her question everything she knows about her mother and about her own decisions in life.

The backstories are very interesting and beautifully written, although I found Jessica's own grappling with her current situation (work, relationship) of much less interest. There isn't a huge amount of suspense, since it's clear no one else could have murdered and hidden the girls where they were undiscovered for so long. But if you're looking for a more gentle read, give this a shot. ( )
  auntmarge64 | Jun 20, 2016 |
Showing 4 of 4
The Conjoined doesn’t provide the tidy resolution that readers have come to expect from books of this nature. The ultimate twist is that there is no twist, but that lack of traditional closure seems to be exactly the point. This novel acts as a troubling reminder of how little we really know about the backstories and motivations of the people we love and trust. In the universe Lee has created, coming to the truth is more about nuance, empathy and openhearted understanding than it is about any strict, simplistic set of rules about good and evil, right or wrong. In this way, The Conjoined is a complex, refreshing and relevant departure from a well-worn approach, one that’s best tackled after surrendering your expectations.
 
The mystery of how the girls died is not the book’s main focus, but this captivating novel still moves with the pace of a thriller as it deftly fills in the gaps in the lives of several people, each fractured by horrors of their very own, joined as one in betrayal, trauma, and uncertainty.
 
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. .. 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.
 
Vancouver author Jen Sookfong Lee’s new novel, The Conjoined, is a fascinating look at family dynamics, mostly of the dysfunctional kind. The story begins with Jessica, a young social worker, whose mother has recently died from a terminal disease. Jessica and her dad, Gerry, are cleaning out her mother’s things when they make a gruesome discovery: two bodies in the freezer downstairs. ..Sookfong Lee is a gifted writer, telling a complicated story with depth and insight..The Conjoined is a quick, compelling read. But its characters and their stories will linger.
 
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amazon ca :On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery ― two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng ― troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away.

As Jessica learns more about Casey, Jamie, and their troubled immigrant Chinese parents, she also unearths dark stories about Donna, whom she had always thought of as the perfect mother. The complicated truths she uncovers force her to take stock of own life.

Moving between present and past, this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.
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