The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

IMG_1555 (2) Stef Penney’s debut The Tenderness Of Wolves was, as I may have remarked just once or twice or perhaps 20 times before, sublime. The Invisible Ones, her second novel, is not. A private eye story set (not in New York or L.A.) largely in Hampshire and Surrey sees Ray Lovell hired to search for Rose, who has been missing for seven years. She married into a gypsy family, the Jankos, and disappeared not long after the wedding. Like The Tenderness Of Wolves, it is another historical novel, but this time set during the 1980s. You come to realise this gradually, mainly through what is absent: no mobile phones, no internet, and the odd contemporary reference to The Smiths. However, the structure is far less complex, the story is much less satisfying. Where her first book embraced multiple narratives and perspectives, this one has just a couple: Ray and a teenage gypsy boy JJ share storytelling duties, occasionally overlapping. It’s a more limited device, but still…you don’t really want to mess with the Jankos. Ray begins the book in hospital, after a car crash, out of his head on substances that even medical science takes a while to identify. He has perhaps got too close to something, or to someone. Ivo – Rose’s former husband – had a severely disabled child with Rose. Families are evasive. Looks are exchanged. Secrets are harboured. Like many of the best detective stories, the original mystery is only one of several – and perhaps not even the most important – which are uncovered during its course. There is a twisted logic to the final reveal. I’m not sure how comfortable I am as an outsider looking into this fictional representation of gypsy life, with no clue of how accurate or patronising it might be, but closed societies do offer rich content. I would seriously doubt that Penney is capable of writing a bad book, and there can be no complaints at a writer who takes the trouble to branch out. She is apparently working on her third novel, set around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ‘quite cold like The Tenderness Of Wolves’. And to be honest, that sounds more like it.

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