Stef Penney – The Invisible Ones

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.

12 thoughts on “Stef Penney – The Invisible Ones

  1. oooooh goodie, someone else who liked it, most of the reviews I read were quite negative, many of them saying some variation of “this book was no good because it wasn’t version two of The Tenderness of Wolves”. Personally I like an author who writes different books rather than repeated versions of the same, successful book.


  2. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – You know, I read Bernadette’s terrific review myself, and got interested in this. And yours has only solidified in my mind that I must read this! I’m so glad you liked this as much as you did. And you’ve done a lovely job of reviewing it.


  3. I am currently reading this book so will bookmark your review for later, but glad you liked it. I am enjoying it so far though I am finding the detective a more believable narrator than the gypsy teenager.


  4. Pingback: Review Round-up: The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney | Quercus Books

  5. kathy d.

    I’m reading it. Although it got off to a slow start, rereading a few good reviews got me going again. And now I find the quality of the writing just superb. That will keep me going. Also, it’s educating me about the Roma people’s lives in Britain. It’s awful that bigotry and discrimination still exist, but it’s also still true in other European countries.
    Stef Penney is an excellent writer. I’m afraid my next few days will not be productive, except in reading as I continue on with this book.


    1. I think this gives a fairly accurate description of Romany life in the UK. There is prejudice but also a long history of their presence in British culture. Do let me know when you have finished the book what you thought of it. There is an interesting premise at the heart of the book…


  6. kathy d.

    I finished the book and thought it quite special. As one blogger pointed out, it’s a family saga. It unpeels layer by layer. I could not put the book down and was actually sad when I turned the last page, as I’d gotten to like the family and would miss JJ. What a great character is JJ, with his love for his family and his earnestness about life. I’ll miss him.
    I feel enriched by having read this book, as I felt about Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. There’s more to it than a mystery.
    The mystery at the heart of the family is a bit unexpected, maybe some won’t find it unbelievable. I’m fine with it. The book is so good.


    1. Thanks Kathy. I thought JJ amazing too. I had begun to guess the family secret but the denouement was still interesting. A very good book and different from her first.


  7. kathy d.

    I checked the syndrome affecting some characters and it does exist and is transmitted as discussed in the book. There is a foundation which deals with those affected by it.


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