Don’t let the cover fool you. Or the book description that begins with “It’s the end of counterculture and Vietnam. Women’s consciousness is being raised and they’re beginning to find their places outside of the home.” Far from the slow-moving, politically charged literary fiction I expected, A.G.S. Johnson’s The Sausage Maker’s Daughters is a family drama and legal thriller. Kip Czermanski has been arrested for the murder of her brother-in-law, an ex-lover whose body was discovered naked in her bed. She has no memory of what happened, and her family, owners of the Czermanski sausage empire (and therefore socially and politically powerful in her hometown) is more concerned about protecting the family name than in ensuring Kip’s well-being.
The murder case presents an interesting mystery — did Kip really kill her brother-in-law? Because she herself doesn’t remember what happened, we learn the truth along with her, through bits and pieces of evidence the prosecution uncovers. But the really fascinating part of the story is Kip’s family. The youngest of four girls, Kip can’t wait to leave her hometown with its repressive small-town mentality. Her mother died at a young age, the eldest daughter Sarah ran away to join a convent, second sister Sybel faced undue pressure to be the “mother” of the household, and third sister Samantha was left to play peacemaker between Sybel and the rebellious Kip. I know we were meant to feel sorry for Kip, but I felt even more sympathetic for Sybel and Samantha, who seemed to feel more strongly the responsibilities for the family. I enjoyed reading about the Czermanski family dynamic, and I loved that the family saga was told within the framework of a courtroom drama.
The writing falters somewhat whenever Johnson injects politics into the story. Often, despite the date markers citing the present day setting as the 1970s, I would forget that the story was indeed set in a different time. But once in a while, as if to remind us about the political background of the era, Johnson has her characters talking about the feminist movement or women’s rights, and the dialogue just sounds more written than spoken. Characters like Kip’s lawyer Phil sometimes sounded like didactic mouthpieces. Certainly, feminism is an important issue, but I wish the rhetoric had been more seamlessly integrated into the storytelling.
Similarly, when it came to really emotionally charged scenes, the dialogue felt stilted. I actually enjoyed some of the more melodramatic conversations. But, for example, in a particularly emotional confrontation among the Czermanski sisters, some of the lines just sounded like they were put there to narrate background information rather than express real emotion.
That being said, the story really takes off once the trial begins, and we get into the truth about the killing. The legal battles are fascinating, and I loved watching Phil’s legal strategies to keep the prosecution off balance. Kip is a sympathetic protagonist, though with too large of a chip on her shoulder to be really likable. Phil, both intelligent and brutally honest, is probably my favourite character; Phil’s ability to call Kip on her prejudices are definitely points in Phil’s favour. The book cover promises an ending that we don’t see coming. To be honest, I was more interested in Kip’s family drama and Phil’s legal maneuvers than in the identity of the murderer. That being said, the ending did take me by surprise, and I found it more sad than shocking.