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.
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.