Jen Sookfong Lee, 264 pgs, ECW Press, ecwpress.com, $18.95.
In Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Conjoined, the death of Jessica Campbell’s mother Donna leads to the discovery of two dead girls at the bottom of a basement freezer. The girls, Jaime and Casey Cheng, were once troubled foster children of Donna’s in the late eighties. They mysteriously vanished, leading all to believe that they’d just runaway, allowing their deaths to go overlooked and forgotten for nearly thirty years. While the premise sounds like a crime story or a murder mystery, Lee’s novel is neither. The Conjoined is, in actuality, a story of forgotten lives and the uncaring reality of a social system.
Upon discovering the Cheng sisters’ bodies, Jessica begins investigating their lives, as well as Donna’s, through agency files and her own memories. Hoping to find a clue as to how they ended up in her mother’s freezer, Jessica instead, faces the weak illusion of a functioning, supportive society. In actuality, Casey and Jaime fell between the cracks, and their lives got lost in a sea of thousands just like them. Through Donna, Sookfong Lee is careful not to demonize the system, rather she portrays it as something that is just as overworked, tired, and broken as the people it’s meant to help.
The greatest strength of Sookfong Lee’s novel is the absolute humanization of her characters, particularly when we get into the heads of Donna’s mother Beth, and Casey and Jaime’s mother Ginny. On the surface they are neglectful, cold, and unfit for parenting. In reality, their lives reveal the heart-breaking trials of motherhood – women desperately trying to keep it all together for the love of their children, then ultimately failing in the eyes of unforgiving social and legal institutions. Even Wayne, who on the surface appears to be a predator, is just as stupid and afflcited as any other human in the novel.
The Conjoined is a fantastic read that offers little in the way of a conclusion. The lack of a satisfying close drives home how incomplete the lives of Casey and Jaime remain, and reminds us that sometimes things end without explanation. (Rayna Livingstone-Lang)