October 25, 2016

The Conjoined - Jen Sookfong Lee

ECW Press, September 13, 2016.

Four Stars

Jessica has always admired her mother, Donna – she even became a social worker to follow in her footsteps, helping underprivileged and damaged children who are lost in the system. Now, Donna has just passed away, and Jessica and her father are struggling to clean out the cluttered house. Underneath the frostbitten packages of meat in the basement freezer, they make their most gruesome discovery – the bodies of two teenage girls, foster sisters who lived with the family and went missing in 1988.

Casey and Jamie Cheng were two troubled and wild girls from Vancouver’s Chinatown. Growing up in the city’s dangerous Downtown East Side, the girls struggled to cope with their overworked immigrant mother, their alcoholic father, and Casey’s affair with a much older man. After a violent crisis at home, the sisters are moved into Donna’s foster home, where they act maliciously and try to sabotage Donna’s efforts to help them.

Through flashbacks, we see Jamie and Casey’s upbringing, culminating in the reason they were taken from their home and placed in the foster system. Although their behaviour towards Donna is atrocious, it’s easy to see how it was caused by circumstances beyond their control. The girls’ loving mother was doing her best to raise them, but her struggle to put food on the table is the plight of many on the Downtown East Side. Donna’s good intentions are representative of a social system that swallows up girls like Casey and Jamie Cheng, without accounting for their differences.

Donna is of course the prime suspect for the deaths of the Cheng sisters, especially since she claimed that she never saw them again after they disappeared from her home. To clear her mother’s name, Jessica embarks on an investigation of the Cheng’s past, and she ends up getting romantically involved with the police detective, at the expense of her current relationship. This side plot is a bit superfluous, but it does speak to Jessica’s growth as she becomes more independent in the wake of her mother’s death.

The mystery of the girls’ disappearance propels the novel forward, but it is not its main focus. The Conjoined is more about the characters’ development as they are affected by topical social issues. It is also an exploration of our social systems and their effects on disenfranchised people such as the Chengs – for immigrant families, assimilation into foster care is not always a good solution. It is often ineffective, and sometimes even harmful to the children’s well-being. The Cheng sisters are removed from their mother’s care based on a generic checklist that did not work in their favour, and as Jessica investigates them through her work, she realizes that she is part of a broken system.

The Conjoined is dark and uncomfortable, and it forces us to confront a bleak chapter in Vancouver’s history – a time when women frequently went missing from the Downtown East Side. The novel ended suddenly at a climactic moment, which underlines the message that it doesn’t matter how the girls died – it matters why. Although this is a mystery, especially as the Cheng sisters’ childhood connects to Donna’s, it is most of all a well-crafted novel about people who feel real.

I received this book from ECW Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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