The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Living on the margins…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s seven years since Rose Janko went missing, and finally, following his wife’s death, her father Leon Wood wants to find her. Rose was married to Ivo Janko in an arranged match, a traditional part of her Romany Gypsy heritage. But rumour has it she ran away with a gorjio (non-Romany) not long after the birth of a son, a little boy called Christo who had inherited the mysterious disease that seems to be the curse of Janko men, leaving them weak and underdeveloped and often dying before they reach adulthood. Knowing that Gypsies would not welcome a gorjio investigating their affairs, Leon hires Ray Lovell, himself half-Gypsy on his father’s side although he was brought up gorjio style – living in a house rather than travelling. Ray soon finds that the mystery of Rose’s disappearance is stranger and darker than it first appears, and finds himself deeply involved in the Janko family’s lives.

The book is told by two different narrators – Ray, the detective, and JJ, a 14-year-old boy who is one of the Jankos. Ray is somewhat in the tradition of noir gumshoe narrators – world-weary and with his own sorrows to bear. However, oddly I found Ray too well-developed to stay in that box – he is given more of a background than noir detectives usually are, and one feels his world-weariness is probably a temporary state brought on by his recent marital break-up. His position as the son of a Gypsy gives him the entrée to the Jankos’ world, but his gorjio upbringing puts him firmly on the margins – not fully accepted.

JJ is also on the margins for different reasons. Brought up in the world of travellers, he is nevertheless constrained by law to go to school, where he learns how different his lifestyle is to kids living in houses, but also knows that they’re more alike than otherwise – sharing tastes in music, food, films, etc., and feeling all the same pains of adolescence. Penney doesn’t make the point overtly, but it’s clear how compulsory education impacts the Traveller communities, partly by forcing them to remain static during school terms, and partly by introducing their children at an early age to the majority culture. JJ is a bright kid, probably destined for college if he chooses, after which he will have career options that may take him far from the traditional Gypsy life. Penney handles his voice excellently, with only a very occasional blip when he uses language that makes him sound too adult or too well educated.

As Ray begins to dig into the past to find out what happened to Rose, we learn about the Jankos’ way of life and the things that are important to them. Their story is one of tragedy, with the males of the family being afflicted by a disease that has gradually killed off the younger generations. Their hesitancy towards civic authorities makes them reluctant to seek medical help, while their traditions and superstitions mean they tend to think in terms of a curse rather than an illness. Ray, straddling the divide, wants to help Christo – the last of the Janko line, and becoming more frail by the day. But we see how getting involved in “the system” presents a threat to a culture of which the state disapproves, sometimes openly, sometimes tacitly. Penney published the book in 2011 but set it in the 1980s – I was left wondering if we’re better now at offering help to marginal communities without demanding they give up their traditions and become part of the mainstream. I expect not, and to be truthful, as part of that mainstream, I’m quite ambivalent about how far we should go to accommodate different sub-cultures, especially if their traditions impinge on the health or educational opportunities of their children. (To be clear, that’s my thought – Penney is not in any way taking a polemical stance for or against Gypsy culture.)

The actual mystery is rather secondary to the more interesting examination of modern Gypsy life. This is just as well, since I felt it was fairly obvious from about halfway through what had happened. I still felt the slow way that Penney revealed it to her characters was very well done, as was her depiction of their reactions when they learned the truth, and I found it understandable that it took them longer to see that truth than the reader. There are elements in it that give it an air of unease, especially in the middle. I’m finding it hard to put my finger on exactly why that happens – I think it’s a combination of the mysterious illness and of some rather hallucinatory scenes involving Ray, which I won’t go into further for fear of spoilers.

Stef Penney

Overall, I found this completely absorbing. It’s a long read, and I found it slow but not in the sense of dragging – more that there’s a lot packed in alongside the central mystery. I’ve seen other reviewers expressing irritation with the pace and with the final reveal which seems to have crossed many people’s credulity line. I must say I found it quite believable, because of the excellence of the characterisation and the quality of so much of the story taking place in marginal spaces, where lines of behaviour and cultural norms are blurred. There are a couple of loose ends I’d have liked to see tied off more neatly, but on the whole I found the conclusion satisfying. And I appreciated the insight Penney provided into this community, now so often lumped in with other traveller groups but still clinging to their own distinct traditions and culture, even as many of them give up the travelling life and become house-dwellers.

Amazon UK Link

46 thoughts on “The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

  1. It does sound interesting, but I’m thinking that the length (432 pages!) would put me off. For example, as much as I was enjoying Dombey & Son, I had to put it aside in favor of shorter books. I am weak, I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s five years since I read this, and it’s faded quite a bit in my memory, even after reading your great review. I did mark it as a notable read at the time so obviously appreciated it like you did. I see there’s an audiobook version at the library, so maybe I’ll give it a reread sometime as I do remember the atmosphere being quite compelling.

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      • I think the atmosphere and the stuff about the Gypsy culture was more significant than the plot, although it was interesting enough to hold the book together. The same applies to her earlier The Tenderness of Wolves – I remember the setting and the feel of the book, but not a single thing about the actual plot!

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    • it was quite a long read, but I never mind that so long as the book is absorbing. However I do have to be in the mood for a longer book! Sorry to hear about Dombey and Son, but even for Dickens it’s a long one!

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  2. This sounds really intriguing, since it seems to give one a good idea of modern gypsy life and the problems and pressures they contend with. Re your question on being able to help communities, I think things may not have changed much. Mainstream life with specific ideas of home, stability, settlement still seem to pervade our ways of thinking so any difference or alternative path is seen still as an aberration, so help seems to try and take the form of bringing them in line with the mainstream.

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    • I try to be open about minority cultures and generally succeed reasonably well, I think. But when a minority culture seems to restrict opportunities for sub-groups within it – usually children and women – then my sympathy drops. It’s a tricky question, but I feel the mainstream has a right to determine minimum standards of opportunities, even where that might conflict with minority cultural sensibilities.

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      • Well, yes, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of culture aspects though I agree denial/restriction of opportunity to women especially would be something I see as problematic too. But I do feel on things like education, the mainstream model is all well, but it’s all being reduced to one model, so those who were say trained for traditional livelihoods within the family may not have the chance to do so if they wish (but so many sub questions attached to that of course); also with communities that are mobile, shouldn’t we be more open to accommodating their needs in terms of healthcare, education etc rather than calling for them to ‘settle’, But yes, hard ones to work out.

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        • Education and preparation for the adult world is certainly a complicated subject and I don’t feel we’ve ever really got the balance right in education between academic and more practical subjects – there’s still quite a lot of snobbery about it. I’d like to see apprenticeships given the same status as degrees – the idea of parents passing on their skills to their children seems to have been pushed aside in the pursuit of “higher” qualifications, which often serve little useful purpose in later life.

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          • Exactly, current day models seem to prepare one for only certain kinds of work, with definitely more snobbery attached to academic subjects; and in countries like mine the pressure for children to excel is immense, whether they have the aptitude or interest or not. If only practical subjects or apprenticeships were given the same value, I think more people would be able to find something they’d like to do rather than simply drag themselves through.

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            • We have a real mix – some kids get put under huge pressure, usually middle-class kids. But there’s also a kind of attitude in large parts of society that it’s more important for kids to enjoy themselves than to learn, which is why we’ve been dropping in the international league tables for literacy and numeracy for many years now. As so often, I fall in the middle – I don’t think we should be pressuring them to the point of breakdown, but when they don’t learn basic skills and a work ethic at a young age it’s hardly surprising many of them turn into adults who’d rather live on benefits than work for a living. (I am not including people who are on benefits because they can’t work, for whatever reason.) And schools are increasingly seen as places of indoctrination rather than education – by both sides of the political divide. It’s all going horribly wrong! 😂👵

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            • The work ethic issue is a real problem. I find now even with the pressure to perform well, students focus on how to score better or secure a position rather than actual learning or even doing their work well. Even phd students I’m seeing around lately aren’t as serious about writing a strong thesis, just one that will do. And it’s the same with work, few are interested in a job done well or take pride in their work, just get it done and move on seems the attitude

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            • I agree. In fact, degree level education has been seriously devalued over the last few decades. People seem to leave university nearly as uneducated as when they went in, in a lot of cases. The universities are under such pressure to ensure high success rates that they don’t seem to be as rigorous about standards as they used to be.

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  3. I liked this one very much, too, FictionFan, and I agree that its strength is in the depiction of modern Roma life (about which I don’t know enough). I thought Penney did a fine job, too, of patching the pace to the sort of book it is. There is, as you say, a slow reveal, but for me, that works well here. I actually very much like Penney’s writing style, too, and I’d like to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I don’t know much about British Roma culture either – I think it’s a very small minority group these days, and shrinking. But Penney’s depiction felt authentic, and I liked that she was neither mawkishly sympathetic nor stridently disapproving – she just showed it and let the reader think for herself. I’d like to read more of her too. She manages that slow pace very well – it always feels as if it’s moving…

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    • My pleasure! 😀 Yes, her depiction of this very small minority culture had a feeling of authenticity, and I liked that she wasn’t trying to force her opinion on the reader.

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  4. I find myself ambivalent about this one. While the plot sounds intriguing (and I certainly know little-to-nothing about Gypsy life), the length might trip me up. It’s hot during the summer, you know, and that makes it a challenge for me to keep focused on one thing for a long time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It definitely has a slow pace, though the story is continually developing. I sympathise – I have to be in the mood for a slow, absorbing book, and when I’m busy with other things, I usually want something fast for the short bursts of reading time available!

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  5. I will be reading The Tenderness of Wolves this summer, and I think you said you liked that one. So I am glad to hear you liked this one too. The topics, the two narrators all sound good. The length is longer than I like but not so long as to deter me. (And Margot like it too, a plus.)

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    • I did enjoy The Tenderness of Wolves very much, although it was many years ago and I can’t remember anything about the plot now. I still remember the setting and the feel of the book, though, and those are the aspects I think she does best, in this one too. I hope you enjoy it! I’m looking forward to seeing what else she’s written… 😀

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  6. At first glance I didn’t think this would appeal to me, but you did your job with your review. It will go on the wishlist (which is just as out of control as the TBR). 🙄

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, my wishlist is kind of where I hide most of my TBR – I just pretend it doesn’t exist most of the time… 😉 If you do read this one sometime, I hope you enjoy it. It’s a slow read, but I found it absorbing. 😀

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  7. Excellent review, FF. I also would feel uncomfortable accommodating traditional views which harm the health and welfare of children. This sounds like a very interesting and well crafted exploration of a culture clash within a mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Laila! Yes, I think that’s where I draw the line – and also when women are denied opportunities against their will. I thought Penney’s depiction of this minority group felt very authentic, and I liked that she wasn’t trying to force her views on the reader.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, funnily enough I made a similar comment when writing my review for The Shadow of the Wind – sometimes too much hype can be very off-putting! However I did love Tenderness of Wolves back when it came out, though I barely remember the plot at all now. I still remember the setting and the atmosphere of the book though.

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    • I particularly liked that she didn’t seem to be takin a position on Romany culture, which is a very divisive subject over here. She just showed us them as ordinary people leading an alternative lifestyle and left the reader to come to her own conclusions.

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      • Every time I’ve visited Europe I’ve been surprised by just how divisive the topic is. Here in North America, the Romany are mostly the stuff of stories and we tend to romanticize the whole thing.

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        • They’ve always been seen as suspicious in Europe, with legends about them stealing children and so on. And of course they’re the forgotten victims of the Holocaust – the ones no one ever mentions. But these days they’re mostly just seen as a nuisance for parking their trailers on other people’s property!

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  8. I think I’d really like to read this book, simply because there are so few books that explore the life of gypsies and their culture in a non-judgmental way. It sounds really fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I needed two attempts at Wolves but on the second try I loved it. Something, sometime, put me off trying this one so I’m delighted you’ve put me right. I like the pace of Penney’s writing and this sounds just my sort of read 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although I remember loving The Tenderness of Wolves, I actually can remember almost nothing about it now except for the setting and general atmosphere. I think when this one came out it got quite a lot of negative reviews, partly because it’s so different to Tenderness of Wolves. That’s why it has lingered for so long on my TBR – I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it on the basis of the reviews I had read of it. But in actual fact I think leaving it for that length of time worked well, and I was able to come to it with fresh eyes and no expectations. I suspect you might enjoy it too!

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