Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Besides the crime/mystery of the main plot, some crime stories also offer perspectives on other cultures, and interesting ‘windows’ into the way other people live. Let’s take a look at that sort of book today and turn the spotlight on Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones.
As the story begins, PI Ray Lovell is recovering in a hospital from what we soon learn is a poisoning. He gradually becomes aware of his surroundings, and it’s not long before he starts to be aware of who he is and where he is. Then the story shifts to the beginning of the events that led to Lovell’s being poisoned.
It all really starts when Lovell gets a visit from Leon Wood, who wants Lovell to find his daughter, Rose. Apparently, she went missing several years ago after a short marriage to a man named Ivo Janko. The real reason Wood wants to hire Lovell is that Lovell is half-Roma, and all of the families involved are Roma. Wood fears that no-one will want to talk to a PI who isn’t ‘one of us.’ Lovell agrees to take the case, and he starts to ask questions. The first person he wonders about is Wood himself. After all, why would he wait so long to try to find his daughter? But there are plenty of other people who might know something, or even be involved. For instance, there’s Rose’s husband, Ivo. And that’s where Lovell heads next.
Soon enough, Lovell meets a few members of the Janko clan, and they all tell him the same story: Rose did marry Ivo, but ran off after their son was born. Even when Lovell finally meets Ivo, he hears the same story. But some things about it don’t completely ring true, and he continues to ask questions.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to James ‘JJ’ Smith, a fourteen-year-old Roma boy. As his part of the story begins, he and his family are on their way to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle cure for JJ’s six-year-old cousin, Christopher ‘Christo.’ It seems that Christo has an incurable illness that has kept him from developing normally. Through JJ’s eyes, readers follow along as the family visits Lourdes, and then returns to the UK.
As the novel moves along, the stories of Rose, of JJ, and of Ray Lovell, who’s trying to put it all together, merge. And, in the end, we learn the truth about what happened to Rose. We also learn why and by whom Ray was poisoned.
Most of the characters in the novel are Roma, so readers learn quite a bit about the Roma way of life. Since Lovell is half-Roma, he’s considered ‘one of us,’ or at the very least, acceptable. So, he doesn’t have uninformed notions of what the Roma are like. And, since many parts of the story are told from his perspective, the portrait we get of the Jankos and of other Roma people is not the superficial depiction that one might hear in stories or legends.
Penney places the reader distinctly within the Roma community, in terms of lifestyle, culture, values, and even some of the language. It’s a ‘warts and all’ exploration, too, told from the point of view of people who are proud Roma, as well as that of people who aren’t. Penney also explores the way the Roma are viewed by gorjios (non-Roma people). We see this especially as we follow JJ’s story, since he has to negotiate his own world and the world of school.
This is a PI story, so readers also get a look at the way modern PIs go about their work (the novel was published originally in 2011). Lovell and his business partner, Henry ‘Hen’ Hamilton-Price, have more than one case going at a time. They’re concerned about the financial aspect of their business. They meet with clients, develop relationships with people in the police force and the media who will help them, and so on.
It’s hard in the Wood/Lovell case, though, to use the Internet and other public records, as Roma people often aren’t reflected in those records, and rarely on social media. Those who travel often don’t stay in one place, so, even if there is some sort of public record, there’s no guarantee of locating a given person. So, Lovell uses his Roma identity to get the word out (e.g. ‘I’ll ask around. See if anyone knows anything.’).
The story is told from Lovell’s perspective (first person, mostly present tense), and JJ’s (also first person, present tense). So, we get to know their characters. Lovell’s marriage to his wife, Jen, has ended, although that’s not what he wanted. In fact, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s a sub-plot concerning divorce papers. He’s a bit at odds with himself, but he’s not a demon-haunted, drunken detective who can’t handle his life. Rather, he’s trying to make a sort of new life for himself.
For JJ’s part, he’s dealing with the issues many young people do: finding a social place for himself (and possibly a girlfriend), doing schoolwork, and so on. He also has questions about what happened to his father (all his mother will say is that his father was a gorjio who wouldn’t marry her, and who left when she got pregnant). As is the case with many teens, he’s also trying to be grown-up, when sometimes, he feels very young indeed.
The solution to the mystery of what happened to Rose is very sad, and finding it out doesn’t make anyone happier or better off. Readers who prefer endings where everything is all right again will notice that. But the questions are answered, and it’s clear that life will go on, and might even be good for some of the characters.
The Invisible Ones is a close look at modern Roma people, and what happens to a close-knit community when long-buried questions come up. It features a sleuth who’s a part of that community in his way, and a young man who’s trying to find his Roma way in a gorjio world. But what’s your view? Have you read The Invisible Ones? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 10 December/Tuesday, 11 December – Too Late to Die – Bill Crider
Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe
Monday, 24 December/Tuesday, 25 December – In Cold Blood – Truman Capote