After trying for many years to have a child of their own, Grace and Tom adopted Cassie when she was three years old. They had immediately bonded with the bright, lively child and, when not long afterwards, Grace became pregnant, the arrival of daughter Erin completed their family. Whilst quite different in personality, the two sisters become very close, are mutually supportive and grow up confident that they are loved by their parents. Although Cassie has always known she was adopted she has never felt any need to discover more about her biological family. However, when she is seventeen, beginning to yearn for more independence and embarking on her first serious relationship, she visits the Family Planning Clinic and when she realises that she cannot answer some of the nurse’s questions about her, and her biological family’s, medical background her life is thrown into turmoil. If she can’t answer these questions, what more is there that she doesn’t know?

When she attempts to find out more from her adoptive parents she discovers that they either can’t, or won’t, provide the answers she needs. Although they promise to approach the adoption team at social services, she believes they are hoping she will give up and gradually becomes convinced that they are hiding something from her. So, determined to discover the truth about her origins, she decides to take matters into her own hands and to use social media to try to make contact with her birth family. It soon becomes clear that the circumstances behind her adoption were far more complicated than could ever have guessed, and that her parents have indeed withheld vital information from her. Her determined quest for the truth threatens the previously comfortable security of everyone in her family.

With switches between past and present, and from the perspectives of different characters, this is a very well told story. As it unfolds, with ever-increasing tension it explores in a sensitive and entirely credible way, the emotionally complex aspects of adoption from the points of view of all involved – the adoptive parents, the person who is adopted, siblings, the biological family etc. For many years I worked as a social worker in an adoption and fostering department so have considerable experience in this field and I was impressed by the way in which the author created such memorable characters to carry the storyline in such a convincing and compelling manner.

I think we all take comfort, and confidence, from knowing our roots and for those of us who are brought up within their biological family, so much information about our family history gradually evolves as we grow up. As we get older and maybe want to know more, it is easy to take for granted that this knowledge is readily available once we start asking questions. People who are adopted have to rely on the information their adoptive parents are able to give them and when specific details are either not known, or deliberately withheld, the individual, whatever their age, is brought face to face with the all questions raised by not knowing. In the past it was much more difficult for people to find answers and the process for doing so was tightly circumscribed. However, technological advances, and the advent of social media, have now opened up new channels of investigation but, this greater ease can increase the vulnerability of the person in search of “the truth”. I was impressed by the way in which the author dealt with this particular aspect of Cassie’s story, the ways in which the teenager was swept up in a vortex of emotions and information and her struggles to understand and process what she was discovering.

Equally impressive was the author’s exploration of the impact that Cassie’s need for knowledge, and honesty, had on other members of her family. Relationships which had felt secure and predictable were now having to be reassessed as each new piece of information, and each deception, came to light. Secrets in any family have the power to be very destructive but this story demonstrates how Grace and Tom’s decision to withhold vital information from their adopted daughter added an extra dimension to their dishonesty. Without spoiling the story it’s impossible to disclose exactly what this well-kept secret was, but for any existing or prospective adopters (and even for biological parents) who read this story, there is an important lesson to be learnt about the corrosive, undermining effects of such secrecy. Although I was, both on a personal and a professional level, very critical of the decision Grace and Tom took, the author’s skill in her portrayal of their motivations, enabled me to at least understand the roots of their fear. I loved the portrayal of the relationship between Cassie and Erin and the ways in which their relationship changed and evolved as a result of Cassie’s search for her roots.

At times this is a dark and disturbing story, and the fact that each one of the characters faces considerable pain and anguish as they are swept up in Cassie’s quest for the truth, also makes it a very moving one. However, there are a number of much lighter moments to offer a counter-balance – something I certainly appreciated! I also liked the fact that the author created a believable twist to the ending, one which didn’t rely on all the ends being neatly tied up – in real life they seldom are!

I think that one of the real strengths of this author’s storytelling comes from her ability to create complex, believable characters, a believable plot and to demonstrate how past experiences have a profound impact, either positive or negative, on how we develop our personalities. Many of the themes which emerged throughout the story, about family loyalty, nature versus nurture, divided loyalties, honesty, secrets and lies etc, were thought-provoking and would certainly lend themselves to making this a good choice for reading groups.

Linda Hepworth 5/5

The Forgotten Sister by Caroline Bond
Corvus 9781786493682 pbk May 2019