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THE INVISIBLE ONES by Stef Penney: Book Review

I’ve always been fascinated by Gypsy culture. I’ve read a number of books about them over the years, including several by Martin Cruz Smith, and enjoyed them all.  But The Invisible Ones is really special.

Stef Penney tells the story in two voices:  that of Ray Lovell, a private investigator with a Gypsy father and a gorjio mother, and that of JJ, a fourteen-year-old Romany youth with a Gypsy mother and a gorjio father.

Ray is approached by the father of a Gypsy woman who has been missing for seven years. The last time her father saw Rose Janko was at her wedding.  Leon Wood insists there is nothing odd about the fact that his daughter hasn’t been in touch all these years, given the vagaries of Romany life.  He was told by her husband and her father-in-law that she ran off shortly after giving birth to a son who inherited the Janko family disease, as yet undiagnosed, which affects only boys and leads to an early death.  But now, after the death of his own wife, Leon wants to find his daughter, or at least to find out what happened to her.

JJ is the second narrator. He lives on a “site” in a trailer with his mother.  In the neighboring trailers are his grand-uncle, confined to a wheelchair; his grandmother and grandfather; and his cousin Ivo and Ivo’s son Christo, who is six years old and suffers from the hereditary disease.  He’s quite small for his age, weak, and can barely speak, but his sweet disposition has his family longing to help him.  And as the novel opens, they are on their way to Lourdes, looking for a miracle like the one that cured Ivo.

The Janko family is indeed living under a cloud.  One of Ivo’s brothers died of this disease, and his sister was killed in a car crash when the family was returning from the Lourdes trip that saved Ivo.  The Jankos are torn between believing that some good fortune is due to come their way and believing that they are doomed to continue living under this curse.  The precocious JJ tells his family’s story with both the intelligence of a bright teenager and the anger and moodiness of the same.

Finally persuaded by Rose’s father that only a Gypsy, even one not with “pure blood,” will be able to find Rose Janko, Ray takes the case.  But no one really wants to talk to him.  Rose’s two sisters haven’t seen her since the wedding, and Ivo and his father are adamant that she left the family because she couldn’t deal with her son’s illness; they couldn’t care less what has happened to her.  But where could she have gone?  In the Gypsy culture, a married woman belongs to her husband’s family, no matter the circumstances, so her own family would not have welcomed her back.  In addition, Rose was born with a port wine birthmark on her neck, making her, in the Romany culture, less than desirable.  Perhaps that is why her father agreed so readily to her marriage to a man she barely knew.

In addition to being an excellent mystery, there is the added attraction in The Invisible Ones of reading about a way of life that not many of us are familiar with. The reader learns about the family’s fear of living “in brick,” of JJ being the first of the clan to possibly graduate from high school and then go on to university, and the reason why Gypsies don’t have sinks in their kitchens.  (Sorry, but you’ll have to read the book to find out the answer to the sink question.)

You can read more about Stef Penney at her web site.