Penney, Stef – ‘The Invisible Ones’
Hardback: 350 pages (Aug. 2011) Publisher: Quercus Publishing Plc ISBN: 0857382926
Set in mid-1980s England, THE INVISIBLE ONES is told from the alternating points of view of Ray Lowell, a private detective, and “JJ” Janko, a 14-year-old gypsy boy who lives with his mother in a trailer on a piece of waste land. Ray’s father was a gypsy, but “married out” and settled down to a regular job as a postman, giving up the nomadic, outdoor life, and emphatically bringing up his son as a gorjio (non-Romany). The two communities live in parallel, according to different rules; people are either gorjio or gypsy, with only minimal interconnection – echoed by the novel’s method of telling the same story from the point of view of two separate narrators. Ray considers himself fully assimilated into the gorjio life, never having lived as a gypsy, but the plot of the novel is designed to bring him into close contact with his roots. A new client, Leon Wood, asks Ray to find out what happened to his daughter Rose, who vanished about seven years ago after a short marriage to a man called Ivo Janko. Ray has good reasons for not investigating missing-persons cases, but he has to agree with Leon’s point that gypsies will not speak to anyone who is not one of them, so reluctantly takes the job. He tries to track down Ivo Janko, which takes him some time, during which we learn about his failed marriage and, in the alternating chapters, more about JJ’s extended family and life.
JJ does not know who his father is, but lives with his mother Kath and her close-knit family – her parents, their brother Tene, who is confined to a wheelchair after an accident, Tene’s son Ivo and Ivo’s son Christo, have trailers on the same patch as JJ. The dominant theme of the novel is the “outsider yet insider” status of JJ and Ray. JJ attends school and experiences all the usual issues of growing up, but his Romany race and lifestyle are always a filter between him and his teachers and fellow-students – either in reality or in his own mind. A dominant part of the lives of the small band of gypsies concerns Christo, the undersized, ill little boy whom JJ loves dearly and for whom he would do anything.
As Ray learns more about the Janko family in his attempts to discover what happened to Rose, he becomes increasingly emotionally involved in them, striking up a sort of friendship with JJ, who is fascinated by Ray’s profession. After he learns of Ray’s quest, JJ decides to try to find out what happened to Rose, as his complex feelings for Ivo see-saw between resentment and wishing that he might turn out to be his father. Ray, in turn, becomes drawn to one of Kath’s sisters, who has left the gypsy life. Hence the novel is both a detective story as well as a story about the personalities and choices of the two protagonists – Ray the outsider who finds in himself a long-hidden yearning to become an insider; and JJ the insider who is conflicted about his desire to exist in the outsider’s world, curiosity about his father’s identity, and loyalty to his family.
I loved THE INVISIBLE ONES, mainly because of its characters of Ray and (after a bit of shaky start) JJ. The initial detective plot is perhaps rather simplistic in the way in which it turns out, but in a book full of double-themes, it gives way to the more complicated mystery of the Janko family itself, which becomes more relevant and pressing as the pages turn, not least because of the little boy Christo and whether there is any hope for him. Because everything the reader knows is only what Ray or JJ knows, the author can reveal very little of the truth and hence can deliver the punchline without having given away too many clues – as Ray can only really know what the Jankos tell him, and JJ cannot fully interpret the adult world that surrounds him – the “clues” he cannot understand become clear in retrospect after the final revelation of the underlying mystery surrounding the “cursed” Janko family.
I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just those who enjoy crime fiction but to those who like a well-written story containing rounded characters, genuine emotion, and providing insights into a vanishing way of life that is unknown to most of us. It is at least as good a novel as the author’s impressive debut, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, and in many ways, even better.