One of the earliest reviews I wrote on this blog was of Stef Penney's Costa winning novel The Tenderness of Wolves. Like pretty much everyone who read it I was bowled over by it, and when I read it a second time last year in order to write a short essay on it I liked it, if anything, even better. So naturally I was anxious to see how she could possibly follow it up. And I'm happy to say I was really fascinated and gripped by The Invisible Ones. No, it's not The Tenderness of Wolves, and why should it be? But, though that novel was set in nineteenth-century Canada and this one is set in 1980s Essex, both share a sense of the strangeness, and otherness, of lives and worlds very different from the ones most of us inhabit.
This is a novel of two narrators, The first is Ray Lovell, a private investigator. As the novel begins, Ray is approached by a man who wants him to find out what happened to his daughter Rose, who disappeared less than a year after her marriage seven years earlier. He has chosen Ray for this task because he knows, from his name, that Ray is a gypsy, as he is himself. Ray is in fact only half gypsy, his father having given up the travelling life, moved into a house, and married a gorgie, a non-gypsy. Good money is put on the table, and Ray plunges in.
The second narrator is JJ Janko, a fourteen year old boy and a member of the old Romany family into which Rose married. JJ lives in a modern caravan with his single mother, surrounded by members of his extended family -- grandparents, great uncle, and cousins. One of his cousins is Ivo Janko, Rose's abandoned husband, who takes care of their six-year-old son Christo. This is no mean task as Christo suffers from what the Jankos call the family curse, a serious inherited blood condition which is apparently incurable, though Ivo seemingly made a full recovery after a journey to Lourdes.
The ins and outs of these two points of view, which soon start to overlap as Ray meets the Jankos and starts his investigations, are really fascinating. The Jankos have many secrets and Tena Janko, JJ's great uncle and the family patriarch, is a firm believer in 'the old black blood of the Romanies' and a holder of the old stories and the old traditions. Many mysteries need to be unravelled before Ray solves the case, and in the process uncovers information that threatens the whole Janko clan. There is an important denouement which casts a very different light on everything that has gone before, and unfortunately I guessed what it was well before it was revealed. You'd think this would have spoiled my enjoyment, but it didn't, or at least not to any appreciable degree.
So -- what I loved, apart from the twists and turns of the central mystery, was the portrait of a race about which I knew next to nothing. The desire of the old generation to hold on to the old ways, the distrust of those who choose to dilute the pure blood, the superstitions and the arcane knowledge of herbs and magic ceremonies, the strong sense of family ties -- but also the low status of women, and the toughness of the life, and the racial prejudice suffered by the tribes -- all of this was more or less new to me and left me wanting to know more.
I read a review that suggested Ray might reappear in future novels, and I would welcome that -- he is an interesting and complex character who spends much of the book trying to come to terms with his imminent divorce. If he does, I hope JJ will also come along -- his narrative voice is terrific, and his intelligence and sensitivity combined with his typically fourteen-year-old thoughts and actions make him a character nobody will forget in a hurry.
Stef Penney is a fine writer, and I strongly recommend this novel -- and if you want to read an interesting take on gypsies, here's an article I found.