I bought this book when it was first published in August and started to read it but then annoyingly left the hardback on a train. It’s taken me this long to get a replacement from my local library but I’m glad I persevered as it turned out to be an excellent and engrossing read.
Penney’s previous book The Tenderness of Wolves won plaudits for its beautiful descriptions of the sparse Canadian wilderness, a feat made more impressive when it was revealed that the author had never visited the country. I heard her on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour a month or so ago explaining this, where she convincingly argued that it was no different to the writing of historical novelists who have to rely on books about the past to provide background to their novels. Those interested can listen to the interview here.
The Invisible Ones has a different subject matter. It deals with the disappearance of Rose Janko who comes from the British travelling Gypsy community. She leaves behind a small baby son who has inherited the family’s genetic disability, a mysterious disease that affects the male children of the family. Rose’s father calls in Ray Lovell, a private investigator of gypsy descent to find the missing Rose. It was this aspect of the book that was most interesting. Essentially all the major characters have some link with the gypsy community – victim, suspects and investigator all have ties to that closed world. As you would expect from Penney, the writing is also excellent. In particular the narrative voice of JJ, the teenage boy trying to straddle traditional travelling culture with his growing awareness of the outside world. All the other characters are equally well written and give an interesting insight into the travelling community.
The gypsy community in Britain is a very difficult subject to write about well. There has been a huge amount in the press recently and most of the commentary I read is either explicitly or implicitly racist or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, worthy. This book is neither. It presents a classic missing persons investigation and takes you through the various stages until a resolution of sorts is reached. In doing so, there are enough twists and turns to satisfy the most demanding of crime readers but in fact the true value of this book is its writing. It beautifully describes modern Britain – the schools, the busy hospitals, the travelling sites abutting wealthy housing, the pubs. Once I had got hold of my replacement copy I couldn’t put the book down. And you can’t really ask for more than that.
There is a positive review of the audio book at Reactions to Reading.