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book review

Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Conjoining falls into a familiar and popular genre of murder mysteries, but vigorously rejects the categorization.Sherri Koop Photography

Now that we're through 2016's big fall literary launches, it's a good time to take a look back at recent releases that may not have received the attention they deserved. High profile award-winners and bestsellers generally dominate the bulk of our mainstream literary conversations, but there are many efforts in a season that are well worth a reader's time and attention. One such book is The Conjoined.

On its surface, Jen Sookfong Lee's third novel for adults falls into a very familiar – and very popular – category of murder mysteries that rely, for better or worse, on the restrictive roles we force on women. Generally characterized by a fast-paced ride and a jarring twist conclusion, these highly successful narratives tend to introduce a dead or disappeared female body, and revolve around the myth of the perfect wife and mother, the alluring mistress, or the "cool girl."

The Conjoined is indeed a murder mystery at heart, and the prescribed identities and interconnections between its female players are certainly front and centre. Lee's women rebel against the inadequate roles they are given, and torment both themselves and each other with those restrictions accordingly. But despite a plot that features the discovery of two dead bodies, this novel doesn't have the same frantic, high-energy feel as the page-turners that have garnered so much attention as of late. The Conjoined offers something more thematically considered, more thoughtful, and altogether more meditative than just the provocation of an entertaining thrill.

Lee's protagonist is Jessica Campbell, a social worker in her 30s who is grieving the loss of her mother, Donna, to cancer. Donna was a benevolent if not martyr type – a hippie caricature who cooked earth-conscious meals, wore long flowing skirts, and in what turns out to be an act of repentance, took in numerous foster kids throughout her life. Supporting her mourning father, and dealing with her own debilitating grief, Jessica attempts to go through and pack up all her mother's belongings, only to make a gruesome discovery – two dead adolescent girls have long been hidden in the home's basement chest freezers. Jessica's father is shocked, the police are called, and the family comes under immediate scrutiny.

Through a series of artfully rendered flashbacks, our protagonist recalls memories of those beautiful, troubled young women – the mysterious, menacing, and even cruel foster sisters that her mother invited into the family home when Jessica was a child. Driven to reveal Donna's relationship to their death, Jessica sets out to understand their short, troubled lives, and in doing so unravels a complicated, wide-reaching story of familial love and parental failure. The line between victim and abuser is blurred, and painful revelations about who her mother really was come to light.

The Conjoined certainly has the typical characters you'd find in a murder mystery (handsome cop included) and the question of how those bodies got into those chest freezers looms large. But more than that, this is a book about mothers, and how, largely unequipped and unsupported, they do their best to protect their children from a world that consistently threatens to destroy them. It recounts how women can fail their children despite best intentions, and how they punish themselves for that failure in myriad ways.

Throughout the novel, Jessica learns not only about the plight of her mother, but the plights of other women connected to the tragedy at hand. From this springs dissatisfaction with her own life and a compelling urge to reject what has been laid out for her via her mother's legacy. It becomes clear that many of Lee's women are given limited choices, and that they painfully carry the burden of terrible loss. The subsequent takeaway is how futile it is to pass judgment on people without knowing their histories, and that there are times when forgiveness – or at the very least, acceptance – can often be the only path forward.

What is admirable about The Conjoined is that its women never fall victim to the titillation or exploitation that this genre can risk stumbling into. In fact, given that the phrase "women in refrigerators" – coined by American comic-book writer Gail Simone in the late nineties – has become shorthand for using the abuse, torture and murder of women as plot device, it's interesting that Lee's writing so vigorously rejects the categorization. Her female characters are fully realized, fully developed, complex and flawed, their bodies never used as a method of getting from one point in the narrative to another. (In fact, it could even be argued that Lee's male characters fall a little flat in comparison to how robust the women are.)

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.