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Bewildering Stories

Steena Holmes, The Forgotten Ones

reviewed by Alison McBain

The Forgotten Ones
Author: Steena Holmes
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Date: April 1, 2018
Length: 348 pages
ISBN: 1503951758; 9781503951754

Steena Holmes’ novel The Forgotten Ones isn’t a thriller in the true sense of the word, although it has some edge-of-the-seat moments. It is a slower-paced pendulum swinging between one family’s idea of truth, lies, sickness and mental illness. It questions the idea of what makes a family and how a family can break apart. And, at its heart, the story is about the choices a person must face when caught between family and what is right, and also the price one pays when choosing silence, even if it’s convenient, over the hard truth.

David is a terminal-cancer patient in the hospital waiting for his end. He’s convinced that redemption is impossible because of the sins of his past, but he still wants to reconnect with his family before he dies. His daughter has cut all ties and kept his granddaughter from him, but he’s determined to find them and explain why he made the choices he did during his lifetime.

His primary nurse at the hospital makes the unexpected connection between David and her roommate, Elle, who turns out to be David’s granddaughter.

Elle’s mother and David’s daughter, Anna Marie, is an artist, but also struggling with bipolar disorder. Raising Elle, Anna Marie told her daughter that her grandparents were dead. Even talking about David and his wife, Gertie, years after she has cut ties with them causes severe emotional trauma for Anna Marie. So once Elle discovers her grandfather is still alive, she meets David to find out the truth or, at least, his version of it.

But Elle has grown up with a mother who has always been creative not only with her art, but also with reality. As David starts to tell her a fantastical and horrific story about her family’s past, she has to figure out how much of what David tells her is true, and how much is the rambling of a dying man whose grip on reality is weakening day by day. It doesn’t help that Anna Marie is insistent on remaining mum in the face of Elle’s constant questioning. But with the ticking clock of David’s terminal illness, Elle is determined to uncover the truth before it’s too late and to find out what secrets have been kept from her for her entire life.

I really enjoyed a lot about this book. The characters were sympathetic, the situation horrific and compelling on multiple levels. The narrative and plot brought to mind the term “slippery slope”: one seemingly good decision can lead to ten bad ones, and yet each decision, by itself, seems sound at the time it’s being made until the characters are so deeply enmeshed in their own problems that there’s no escape from the untenable.

The story also paints an interesting picture of mental illness and reality, specifically bipolar disorder. It explores the themes of nature versus nurture and how these two elements tie into contributing to a sufferer’s symptoms. Both mental and physical trauma can cause a greater acceleration of the illness, and the idea of this is played with in the plot of the story. How much can a person overcome before the disease overcomes the person?

If I had a criticism of the book, it’s a small one. At times throughout the story, I felt the withholding of information from the main character, Elle, seems too deliberate and used only as a vehicle to prolong the mystery for the reader. Aside from her roommate Brennley, who plays a supporting role in the story, Elle is the only character who doesn’t know anything about the troubled past of her family. All the other characters, from Anna Marie to David, from David’s friend Charlie to Anna Marie’s companion Grace, know about the secrets of Elle’s family. Yet each one, often on multiple occasions, refuses to answer Elle’s questions about what they know. Elle gets frustrated by this in the story, and the reader might feel a bit frustrated in the beginning, too.

But Holmes does a great job with accelerating the pacing of the book, as well as the mystery, as the narrative goes on. While the opening is a bit slow — not that I mind; I like a gradual build to a story, honestly — the events took a sudden jump and the book grew more and more engrossing the further I read.

However, at the end, everything gets resolved quickly and neatly, which I felt seemed to come on a bit fast considering the slow pacing and revelations during the start of the book. Just as a personal preference, and I’m sure others may disagree, I would have preferred either more ambiguity or more conflict at the end. Despite explanations that covered the conclusion of the story, the story left me wondering what would have really happened next.

But perhaps this was not a bad thing, considering I’m still thinking about the story today.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, since I found the narrative compelling, and the characters equally so. I think this is an enjoyable book and well worth picking up from your local bookstore. The storyline has a number of twists and turns that were fun to follow. I would definitely enjoy reading another book by Steena Holmes in the future.

Copyright © 2018 by Alison McBain

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