Coming to terms with a parent’s death is difficult enough, but Jen Sookfong Lee threw a hell of a curveball at the protagonist of The Conjoined. While Jessica Campbell and her father are clearing out years of accumulated food, clothes, and the rest of Jessica’s mother’s possessions, they stumble across something that sends Jessica into a tailspin. Until they discover two bodies buried deep in freezers in the basement, everyone believed that Donna was the next best thing to a saint. Donna cooked the healthiest of foods and took in troubled foster children all Jessica’s life. So who is in the freezer and how did they get there?
Shortly after the Vancouver police arrive to take the bodies away and question Jessica and her father, Jessica reveals that she is pretty sure she knows who the dead girls were. Casey and Jamie Cheng were Donna’s only failures. Jessica, at first, remembers that the two girls disappeared one day in 1988 and were never seen again. Everyone assumed they had run away. Over the course of the book, she remembers more and more—which has her reconsidering not just her idea of her mother, but everything in her life from her boyfriend to her job to her purpose.
The Conjoined is not the story of a murder, though I have tagged it as a mystery. The mystery in this book is Donna and Jessica came to be the women they are. The narrative moves back and forth from 2016 to 1988 to the early 1980s to the 1940s and 1950s as we learn how the Cheng sisters came to be in foster care and how Donna transformed an unhappy childhood into a personal quest to save as many children from bad homes as she can.
Though the plot races along, I found depths to The Conjoined that moved me. I sympathized with Jessica as she tried to continue her mother’s quest to save foster children, especially as she failed over and over again. There is so much pain and suffering in the world that it overwhelms Jessica (and me, every time I look at the news). There are characters in this book who turn their backs on the world because they have been burned too many times. And there are characters, like Donna and Jessica’s desperately woke boyfriend, who try so hard to right the world’s wrongs that they lose the ability to forgive themselves for being discouraged, tired, and frustrated with people who just won’t be helped. This book is a gem of necessary truths.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 September 2016.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who are saddened by the world’s miseries and/or readers who need to learn that it’s okay to screw up and be human every now and then.