Monday April 24, 2017

Jen Sookfong Lee on the dramatic parent-child relationship

Columnist Jen Sookfong Lee recommends two books about women who harbour resentment about their caregiving roles.

Columnist Jen Sookfong Lee recommends two books about women who harbour resentment about their caregiving roles. (Hamish Hamilton/Sherri Koop/Penguin Random House)

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Jen Sookfong Lee's novel The Conjoined is a murder mystery that opens with a young woman named Jessica finding two adolescent girls inside her deceased mother's freezer. The gruesome discovery leads Jessica to question the perfect mother she thought she knew and try to uncover the dark corners of her troubled past.

In her role as a columnist for The Next Chapter, Jen Sookfong Lee recommends two books, both written by women, that peer into the heart of family relationships. She says Shari Lapena's thriller The Couple Next Door and Deborah Levy's Hot Milk are novels that will pull readers out of their comfort zones.

When life doesn't go according to plan...

I think for both Sofia [the main character in Hot Milk] and Anne [the main character in The Couple Next Door], they're finding themselves in a life that they're finally realizing they never really wanted to begin with. For Anne, it's having a baby. For a lot of women, you focus on getting pregnant and then you focus on having the baby. And then the baby is born — and then what do you do now? And why is it so hard? For Sofia, she wanted to finish her PhD. She wanted to live in London, work at the coffee shop, work on her anthropology degree. And all of a sudden, she has to go home and take care of her mother. Both of these women are being forced to care for somebody else, and they feel that their own individual identities are withering away. And there's anger that comes from this caregiving role.

The other side of the story

When I was reading these two novels, I often thought of them as being opposite sides of the same story. In The Couple Next Door, you have a mother resenting her infant daughter. And then in Hot Milk, you have an adult daughter resenting her chronically ill mother. I often thought that Anne and her infant daughter Cora, as life goes on, would eventually become Sofia and Rose. And there would be this constant tension. 

The ticking time-bomb of family life

We are very used to crime fiction, or even regular fiction featuring violence, that's written by men. I often feel that when men write violence, the violence is directed outward. It's often directed to social or political events. I think when women write violence, they often write it in very domestic, very intimate settings. In these two books, it's the mother-daughter relationship. I think the authors wanted to write something dramatic and loaded with emotion, and there's nothing more loaded with emotion than a parent-child relationship. It's also a political statement in a way by the authors about the restricted roles that women are often cast in, that women can often feel a great deal of shackling in the caregiver role.

Jen Sookfong Lee's comments have been edited and condensed.