Lore of Romany Culture in The Invisible Ones

Cover-of-The-Invisible-Ones1Book Review

The Invisible Ones (2012) by Stef Penney

by Sherry Evans, PortsmouthPublic Library

“In her mesmerizing sophomore outing, [Stef] Penney wraps a riddle in a mystery inside an enigma that intrigues from the very first page” says Publisher Weekly.  How’s that for a hook?! 

Following her 2006 mystery, suspense and historical fiction debut, Tenderness of Wolves, set the 1867 Canadian wilderness, Penney’s latest, The Invisible Ones, set in the 1980s, explores a new setting betwixt a hospital bed inLondon and the woods of the English countryside.  The quaintvillage ofSt. Mary Mead inhabited by the proper Miss Marple, this is not.  Instead we have strugglingLondon private investigator, Ray Lovell, an anti-social nice guy who is filled with angst about the break-up of his marriage.  And his business is not exactly thriving, either.  Enter a Romany man (gypsy), Leon Wood, asking Ray, half Romany himself, to find his missing daughter Rose who has been gone for seven years.  He claims the Jankos, the gypsy clan Rose married into, are to blame for her disappearance.  Unable to turn away from their linked heritage, reluctantly, Ray takes the case. 

            Ray’s initial impression of Leon Wood, “Leon Wood is short, slightly overweight in a top-heavy way, with a ruddy, tanned face.  People don’t say weather-beaten anymore, do they?…but that’s what he is.  His clothes look expensive, especially the sheepskin coat that must add a good six inches to his shoulders.”

 The story moves back and forth in time, beginning with Ray in a hospital bed recovering from a mysterious car accident and suffering from partial paralysis, memory loss and delirium.  How did he get there?  He has no idea.  As his symptoms recede, his memory returns bit by bit.  Fast-paced and seamlessly timed, the clues unfold in Ray’s voice and the voice of JJ, the 14 year old son of the Janko clan.  JJ is inquisitive, bright and trying to figure out life.  He’s fiercely loyal to his extended family but wonders about life outside of the caravan village. 

            Penney says, “What I tried to do with this story was create a mystery whose solution could emerge somehow balanced between two first person narratives – neither of the main characters would have all the information, but between the two you could find the answer.”

 Stir into the mix, Louise Janko, who has made the break with the ‘old ways’ only to be tugged back in by Ray and the family.  What does she really know about Rose’s disappearance?  What is she hiding?  For that matter, what is everyone hiding?   Due to his heritage, Ray gets close to the truth, only to be shut out repeatedly.  There is a mysterious illness that appears to be inherited by the sons.  Is there a cure?  Did Rose run away from that?  More family members disappear.  One of the caravans is burned.  A skeleton is found.  Is it Rose?   “…the story ends with a bone-rattling surprise…” (Library Journal Be ready it’s a good one!        

 One of the many reasons I love fiction is the way history seeps through.  From a well-researched novel, such as this one, you can learn much about a particular slice of life, time in history and geographical place.  Penney did this beautifully in both of her novels.  I know a lot more about Romany culture from The Invisible Ones as a result.  There is something exotic and mysterious about the gypsy lifestyle. 

 I’m a sucker for a British accent, so I would highly recommend listening to this story.  Dan Stevens portrays Ray and JJ in distinct versions of a British accent.  Each sentence comes to life.   (Available at the library as a Book on CD.)

 If you enjoy your private detectives less hard-boiled, imperfect and humble, like Ray Lovell, you might also enjoy Kate Atkinson’s series beginning with Case Histories, featuring ex-cop Jackson Brodie.  Both characters are prone to leading with their hearts but ultimately get the job done.

 Hailing from Scotland, Penney won the Costa Award in 2006 for Tenderness of Wolves in both the Book of the Year and First Novel categories.  The Costa Book Award is one of the UK’s most prestigious and popular literary prizes and recognizes some of the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland.

 Look for future novels by Stef Penney; she is a talent to be watched.   

 More gypsy or Romany fiction in the Portsmouth Public Library collection:

            Burn by Ted Dekker and Erin Healy

            Chocolat by Joanne Harris

            Fig Eater by Jody Shields

            Forbidden Fruit by Kerry Greenwood

            Fox Evil by Minette Walters

            An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

            Nemesis by Jo Nesbo

            Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski

            Red Herring with Mustard by Alan Bradley

            Zoli by Colm McCann

New York Times Book Review.


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