Social worker Jessica Campbell is sorting through her deceased mother’s belongings with her father when they make a shocking discovery: two bodies in the basement freezers.
Jessica immediately knows who they are. The foster children who came to live with the family in 1988, Jamie and Casey. The teenage girls were troubled, and like everyone else, Jessica thought they’d run away when they went missing.
As Jessica tries to find out more about the girls, she uncovers her mothers secrets. While the image of her perfect mother crumbles, Jessica tries to piece together the past and make sense of her life in the present.
Let’s get into it…
This book starts out with a bang with the discovery of the dead bodies. But if you’re expecting a gritty who-dunnit, you might be disappointed. This novel is actually a much more introspective work that examines grief, memory, cycles of abuse, race, and social work.
The novel moves between past and present as the protagonist uncovers different pieces of Jamie, Casey, and her mother’s story. The sections that deal with the past are definitely the more difficult to read. These deal with why the girls were in foster care, and it’s not a happy story. Still, it is important for the contrast it shows between the girls’ lives and Jessica’s childhood.
The parts set in the present revolve around Jessica, though other characters – her father, her boyfriend, the police officer in charge of the case – are present. Jessica is a thoughtful character. Her mother played a large role in her life, influencing her decision to become a social worker. Thus her death and the discovery of the bodies forces Jessica to examine her life. She questions not only her career, but also her relationships. As she uncovers more about the past, she must choose how to move forward. Thus, the story is one of personal growth as well as mystery.
Jessica’s career woes were especially interesting to me. My understanding of social work mainly comes from shows like CSI, so it’s pretty limited. Jessica struggles to feel like she’s capable of doing any good, and given the girls’ fate it’s easy to see why. Still, I thought Sookfong-Lee showed it’s importance, while also highlighting it’s issues and avoiding demonizing parents who cannot support their children.
Ultimately, this novel stands out to me for its illustration of how we connect with one another and how harm is transferred. Sookfong-Lee writes sensitively, while also including some creepy/uncomfortable scenes.
Despite the fact that it wasn’t as much of a mystery/thriller as I was expecting, this book definitely kept me reading. I was eager to find out what had happened and how the protagonist would come to terms with it. I found the novel ended before I wanted it to. However, once I came to terms with having finished it, I accepted it as the logical conclusion to the story. I’ll definitely keep an eye on new work from Jen Sookfong-Lee so I can get more of her fantastic writing.
Final thoughts: The different threads that Sookfong-Lee weaves together in The Conjoined make for an incredibly vivid and rich story.