Review: The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
Scottish author Stef Penney's second novel has an awful lot to live up to: her debut The Tenderness of Wolves won the lucrative Costa Book of the Year Award and was beloved by both book buyers and critics alike -- one review compared Penney to esteemed American author Annie Proulx, while another referred to the novel as "a tense and delicately written thriller".
The Invisible Ones is set in the mid-Eighties and follows the crime/thriller genre more traditionally, in that it employs a small-time private investigator as one of two narrators. Ray Lovell appears to be a textbook crime novel PI: he has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and he's a bit of a lone wolf with a chequered relationship history. So far, so standard. He's also part Romany Gypsy, albeit settled. When Leon Wood, a travelling Gypsy, approaches him to help find his daughter, Rose Janko, nee Wood, she has already been missing for six years after marrying Ivo Janko, a fellow Traveller. Leon wants Ray on the job as he's "one of us" and will thus be able to find out more than a gorjio, a non Romany. When Ray takes the case, he finds that the Jankos are a closed, tight-knit group and he is puzzled as to why they never appeared to look for Rose after she went missing. The story is that she upped and left after her son, Christo, was born with the family disability.
JJ, the novel's other narrator, isn't so sure what to believe either. He's 14 and lives with his mum in a trailer in rural southern England, alongside the extended Janko family. He's never known his father and also wants answers to some of the questions that dog the family such as the misfortune that seems to surround them in an angry black cloud.
One of The Invisible Ones' main strengths is that the insular Romany world is a fascinating setting for a novel. There is even a glossary of Romany terms at the end, but I found that I didn't actually need it, so well does Penney sprinkle the Romany culture into the narrative. She manages to weave the culture's rich history throughout the fabric of the book and is adept at contrasting the worlds of tradition with the modern. She explores the bonds and secrets that bind family particularly well, especially in a community which is suspicious of the outside world.
The dual narration device works effectively, and the voices of both characters, detective Ray and teenage JJ, are well differentiated. JJ has a youthful energy in his voice, in contrast to Ray's quiet cynicism, so that it never becomes a chore flipping back and forth between each character and if their names weren't written at the top of the page, it would immediately be obvious who each narrator was anyway.
Penney is expert at setting a scene and creating compelling characters -- some more compelling and well drawn than others -- however, the book could have done with being cut down by a few thousand words, to my mind. It seemed to drag a bit towards the end and when this overly long lead-in finally reached the denouement, my expectations had been set sky high and I found it unconvincing. I won't spoil what happens, other than to say that I found it a bit implausible.
However, despite these quibbles, The Invisible Ones is a compelling mystery and Penney is a talented storyteller. Perhaps it's just a case of being a victim of one's debut novel's success.
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