By Jen Sookfong Lee. ECW, 272 pp, softcover
Every once in a while, a book comes along that is both universal in its readability and specific in its appeal to Vancouverites. Novelist and CBC columnist Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Conjoined is that kind of book.
The well-crafted novel is Lee’s third for adults (she also writes for the YA audience), and it is both a gripping crime fiction and a lush, lyrical deep dive into the soul of the Downtown Eastside, steeped in Strathcona streetscapes and stirring historical detail.
Inspired by a grisly news story Lee once came across, the narrative follows Jessica Campbell, a Lotusland social worker who’s grieving the death of her saintlike mother. As she and her father clear out the family home, they are shocked to discover two dead bodies in the basement freezer. It dawns on Jessica that these belong to the teen foster girls, Casey and Jamie Cheng, who had moved in decades prior and then disappeared without a trace.
To find out who murdered the girls, Jessica must play detective, unearthing family secrets that stretch back to the 1940s—to her grandmother’s life in the West End and, later, in windswept Lions Bay—and then tracing the tale to Chinatown circa the 1980s, and back to the Vancouver of the present day, all the while coming to terms with a new image of her mother that emerges.
Thwarting Jessica in this quest are a handsome police investigator, and a holier-than-thou activist boyfriend, both of whom would prefer she left well enough alone.
This is a page-turner—guaranteed to be read hungrily in one or two sittings—but an intensely literary one. And one that raises the spectres of poverty and exclusion, issues that Sookfong Lee confronted doing communications for a Vancouver social-services agency. (“I really want readers to consider the lives of people who are otherwise invisible to them,” she told Quill & Quire of her desire to highlight life on the margins.)
But The Conjoined is also a homage to Vancouver, however dark. The city is a central character here, and one that locals can’t help but find compelling.