The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
Small-time private investigator Ray Lovell veers between paralysis and delirium in a hospital bed. But before the accident that landed him there, he had promised to find Rose Janko. Rose was married to the charismatic son of a travelling gypsy family, Ivo Janko. When Ray starts to investigate her disappearance he’s surprised that her family are so hostile towards him. The Jankos have not had an easy past. They are a clan touched by tragedy – either they are cursed, or they are hiding a terrible secret. Could it be that Rose’s discovery of that secret led to her disappearance all those years ago? Soon Ray wishes that he’d never asked the question.
Stef Penney endured huge success with her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves, which went on to win the 2006 Costa Book of the Year Award, leaving many people waiting a number of years for her next book. With her debut set in the Canadian wilderness, The Invisible Ones couldn’t be any more different; focusing on the lives of a travelling gypsy family in 1980s Southern England. Obviously, there is much to live up to with regards to the success of Penney’s debut, and despite the fact I haven’t yet read The Tenderness of Wolves (even though it is on my shelf to read,) I have a feeling people may be somewhat disappointed. Not to say that this is a bad novel, because it isn’t, it’s just not a great novel.
Books on gypsies have become really popular this year, and being a bookseller myself I have noticed many new biographies on travelling gypsies being released and selling very well. Most people probably have a pre-conceived idea of what gypsies are like – maybe that they are just a group of people with no jobs and no real belongings who just live on other people’s land. What I loved about this book is although Penney may not have set out intentionally to challenge these ideas, but I loved the way she gives her readers an insight into the life of a gypsy and what it must be like to be so discriminated against just for following a long-held cultural tradition. I’m sure it’s not quite as black and white as this, and I’m not going to pretend I know much about gypsies because I don’t, but Penney did make me see another side to their lives and I became instantly fascinated by it all.
If you’ve read the blurb above then you will know that this story is about an investigation into the disappearance of a young gypsy woman who had recently been married. In my opinion, one of the main things that brings the story down is its investigator, Ray Lovell. Ray is originally of Romany descent and this is the reason why he is recruited by the gypsies in the first place. Aside from that, Ray is every bit your typical investigator – recently split from his wife, struggling to get over her, struggling to meet other women, and generally just a little bit dull. I found him to be a stereotypical character and not in the least bit compelling to read about. However, the story switches between Ray’s character, and that of JJ – a young gypsy boy who is a part of the family involved in the investigation. JJ held much more interest in the story as a character, and he becomes the reader’s window into the whole of the family. If it wasn’t for his character I think the story would have struggled to maintain any entertainment, and this certainly isn’t helped by the extremely slow-moving plot.
My final gripe with the story has to be the ending. I thought the whole novel was going to go down a completely different route, involving the magic and shamanism side of the gypsies, as this was referenced to a number of times throughout. These were the parts that really captivated me, and I was eager for it to play more of a part. But in the end, I felt let-down. You could say it played a small part in it all, but not in the way I thought it would. I thought the ending was completely unconvincing and unrealistic. In truth I hadn’t seen it coming, maybe that’s a good thing but I could also argue that I hadn’t seen it coming because it just wasn’t plausible.
Despite the negatives I have listed here, I did enjoy this book. It is worth reading and it does give a very interesting and intriguing insight into the life of a gypsy family. As I said before, I do have a feeling that for those who enjoyed The Tenderness of Wolves, that this second novel will prove disappointing, but that is just a hunch considering I haven’t yet read it! It’s always hard for writers to live up to a previous award-winning novel, but I do hope Penney manages it next time.
The Invisible Ones is out now, published by Quercus – thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy!
- The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney: review (telegraph.co.uk)
- A Page in the Life: Stef Penney (telegraph.co.uk)
- One Minute With: Stef Penney, novelist and film-maker (independent.co.uk)