Review: The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

In 1980’s England private investigator Ray Lovell is hired by Leon Wood to find his daughter Rose, a young gypsy woman who he hasn’t seen for six years. Not since she married Ivo Janko, had a child and then, seemingly, disappeared. Leon Wood believes her dead at the hands of the Janko family and wants Ray, who he hires because he recognises that Ray Lovell also has gypsy heritage, to confirm this or locate Rose if she is still alive. At the same time as the story of Ray’s investigation unfolds there are alternating chapters told from the point of view of JJ, Jimmy Janko, the 14 year-old cousin of Ivo Janko and chronicler of the family’s trials and tribulations.

Although Ray Lovell is ostensibly the protagonist here I thought his primary purpose was to provide the angles into the story that a teenage boy could not. Because the story is, at its heart, JJ’s. For the second time in a week I have been captivated by a story told from the perspective of a young boy and in this instance I am also quite besotted. JJ’s perspective on the experiences of his family, still living a somewhat traditional life of trailers, constant moving and deliberate isolation from gorjios (non gypsies), is absorbing. In addition to Ivo and his disabled son Christo we are slowly introduced to JJ’s mum, grandparents, crippled great uncle who live in a group of trailers on the fringes of suburbia. At the beginning of JJ’s story most of the family is on a pilgrimage to Lourdes in the hope of achieving a miracle cure for 6 year-old Christo who suffers from the Janko family disease. This affliction affects the male members of the family and kills most of them, sparing only Ivo who apparently had his own miracle during a visit to Lourdes as a teenager. JJ’s observations about his family, their uneasy relationship with gorjios and his own tentative explorations of a life outside the narrow confines of his upbringing are compelling and I found him an easy character to like as well. Ray Lovell on the other hand is a little bland with a hint of creepiness provided by his stalker-like behaviour towards any woman that takes his fancy.

The story itself is an odd mixture of threads amongst which the mystery component, i.e. finding out what happened to Rose Janko, seems less and less important as the book goes on (which is probably just as well as the resolution is somewhat unbelievable). Really it’s the story of this fascinating family of fringe-dwellers, both physically and literally, who are struggling to maintain their traditions and culture. Penney shows us what they are trying to cling on to and makes us wonder what lengths each of them would go to for a chance at keeping hold of some aspect of their traditional life. The structure of the book is a little complicated though I enjoyed the way it almost started in the middle and then had Ray and JJ’s overlapping narrations draw slowly together.

I must also make a special mention of the narration by Daniel Stevens which I suspect added an extra, entirely wonderful, dimension to my experience of this book. His alteration between the two storytellers seemed to encompass more than a mere voice change (it would have been easy to believe there were two actors responsible for the narration) and I’m sure he helped make JJ in particular a thoroughly three-dimensional character for me.

Normally when I am out of step with other readers it is because they have loved something that I don’t like. This time I seem to be in the reverse situation of thoroughly enjoying a novel that no one else cares much for. Happily I waited until after I had finished the book myself to read any reviews of this newly released book because most of the ones I could find make not very flattering comparisons to her first novel. Personally I’m not so sure they’re that different. Although I liked The Tenderness of Wolves very much I found its mystery element a little underdone and its resolution a little incredible, much like I did here. What I think Penney does superbly, though differently in each book, is transport readers to a world that she creates out of nothing and make it easy to get lost in that world. The fact that 1980’s England doesn’t have much in common with 1860’s Canada is a bonus for me as I’m heartily sick of authors writing the same book over and over again.

So for me this was a great read which I would recommend if you can cope with a slow pace and a novel that is driven more by compelling characters and atmosphere than a thrilling plot. If you are an audiobook fan I would highly recommend Daniel Stevens’ narration which is one of the very best I’ve heard since I started listening seriously (20+ books a year) several years ago.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I haven’t found any reviews at my usual blogging haunts but this snarky Telegraph (UK) review is pretty representative of those I saw in the mainstream media.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5 (half a star extra for Daniel Stevens’ narration)
Narrator Daniel Stevens
Publisher Quercus Publishing [2011]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from
Length 11 hours 23 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it

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13 Responses to Review: The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

  1. Bernadette – Excellent review as ever. I know you’d mentioned recently that you were reading this book, and I am so glad you enjoyed it. I really don’t know enough about the gypsies/Roms, and this book sounds as though it’s as much a look at what life is like for those people as it is anything else. I’m going to get this one.


  2. Barbara says:

    I had seen other, less complimentary, reviews elsewhere but still think the gypsy angle would make the book interesting to me. I can’t remember ever reading a novel about a gypsy family. They are usually a criminal element that just causes trouble on the edges of a plot.


    • that’s what I liked so much Barbara, it wasn’t all about the gypsies being some kind of stereotype – they were a family like any other – with ties and strengths and weaknesses and all sorts of characters


  3. Maxine says:

    Again you are a few steps ahead of me on this one, Bernadette, so I’ll bookmark your review until I have read the book. I loved The Tenderness of Wolves (though it has a few flaws, but not fatal ones) so I am looking forward to this. I haven’t seen any UK reviews of it yet in the papers over here. I saw my book fairy yesterday so I have a new stack to read, including this one and Burned (which you’ve also reviewed recently and which I started on last night).


  4. Kathy D. says:

    Very good to see a more than favorable review of this book here. I did read another one a few days ago with an interview of Stef Penney.
    It is very unusual to read a book about a Roma family just as any other family would be described. It’s a good thing.


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  6. lou simmons says:

    I relly enjoyed the book but something is annoying me!
    It states ( as far as i understand ) that barths disease is passed down from the mother ( the carrier ) and not the father (the men who had it had all died ) if this is so, how did ivo have it? His father was a janko not his mother! Or was she a carrier too? ?
    I’m confused!


    • Oh dear…now you’re showing me up lou…my memory is appalling, I just can’t remember the details well enough…I have the idea it was passed down through the Jankos but I really can’t remember sorry


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  10. Kathy D. says:

    I just finished this highly enjoyable book. It wasn’t a page-turner thriller. It took me days to read it, but it fascinated me. The story was gripping and and so was the unfolding of the family saga. I am sad about finishing this book because I grew to care about JJ, especially his love of Christo and his family.
    I am so glad that Stef Penney chose a completely different century and setting for her second book. The variety of environments is one of the compelling aspects of global crime fiction.
    Who wants to read the same book over and over again? Not most of us.
    This is a special book, an unusual read. It obviously took much research and work to write this book, so I thank Stef Penney for it. I feel enriched by reading it.


    • I’m so glad you liked this too Kathy and you’re right it is quite special. I really loved JJ as a character – he has lingered in my mind ever since reading the book which is always a good sign.


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