‘Had a sister, you know. Christina. She gave her life for me.’Ray Lovell wakes up in hospital, clinging to a fleeting impression of a terrifying woman: that's the only thing he can initially remember. It appears that he's ingested sub-lethal quantities of one or more hallucinogenic plants. He doesn't mention that the last meal he remembers eating was prepared by the charismatic Ivo Janko, whose wife Rose disappeared shortly after giving birth to their son Christo. It's presumed that her departure was due to the discovery that Christo -- like many of the Janko men -- had inherited the family disease, which kills boys before they reach manhood. Ray, who's of Gypsy descent himself (though he protests 'I was brought up in a house'), has been called in to find the missing Rose. But why now, six years after her disappearance?
I stare at him – presumably what he intended. ‘I thought she died in a road accident?’
Ivo shrugs. ‘If it wasn’t that, it would’ve been something else. ... Dad wanted a miracle. For me. But you have to pay for that, if you’re a Gypsy. It’s a life for a life, isn’t it? That’s what the Bible says.’ [loc. 3590]
There are two narrators in The Invisible Ones: the second is JJ, Ivo's nephew, who's 14 and hasn't inherited the disease. His perspective is razor-sharp, and he's more aware of prejudice, snobbery and family secrecy than anyone else in the novel. JJ isn't unhappy with his life, but he's acutely aware of how different it is to the lives of his schoolmates: no privacy, few possessions, barely socialising with anyone you're not related to. Moving on, moving on.
It turns out that Rose's disappearance isn't the only secret that the Janko family have wrapped themselves around. JJ's mum, Sandra, seems unusually close to her cousin Ivo. Ivo's sister, Christina, died in a car crash on the way back from Lourdes, where they'd all gone to pray for a miracle to save Ivo from the family disease. Little Christo has that disease (it's Barth syndrome), and is expected to die of it. Tene Janko, Ivo's father, is in a wheelchair after a near-fatal car crash. And bones have been discovered at a traveller site once frequented by the Jankos. It's as though they are cursed.
And Ray curses himself for taking on another 'missing girl' case, because he screwed up his last one very badly indeed.
The Invisible Ones is set in the mid-1980s: Penney explains in an afterword that " in the 80s we didn’t have the internet or mobile phones, and that has a great impact on the way a detective works and speeds things up. I wanted things not to progress too fast, or for the characters to communicate too easily." [loc. 5426] It's worth noting that in the 1980s Barth syndrome had only just been identified.
Though this novel has the elements of the crime genre, it isn't (or isn't just) the story of a detective investigating and solving a cold case. Indeed, it's not entirely clear whether the resolution of the case is ever explained to those concerned. It is, instead, a novel about outsiders, and keeping secrets, and how those secrets can rot a family from the inside.
Rereading my review of Penney's first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, I see some recurring themes ... but I think I liked The Invisible Ones more, and wonder if that's simply because I remember the period in which it's set.