Stef Penney’s first book was a critical and commercial darling, the riveting ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’, which was set in the remote Northern American territories in the nineteenth century. She did the world building there with just the research done in the closed confines of libraries, a pointer to her considerable talent in the genre. I enjoyed it enough to give her another go with this one.
Metaphorically, this one is also set in remote communities, though not in terms of geographical isolation. Rather, it is set among the vanishing Gypsy tribes of 1980’s England and the internal politics which manifests in a certain Gypsy family. Primarily, it is about private investigator Ray Lovell, a half Romany himself, who is tasked with the case of locating a long lost young lady, Rose. The case is brought to him by her father after she has been missing for years. A side effect of the custom that gypsy women usually belong to the family they marry into and it not being very unusual for family members to not meet each other for a long time.
The family that Rose married into, and the ones under suspicion on foul play in her disappearance, are the Jankos. Fiercely protective of the pure Gypsy blood, the Jankos appear a powder keg about to go off at any point. There is Ivo, the husband of Rose, and their child Christo who is sick with a mysterious illness which affects most of the Janko boys. Ivo’s father Tene is also along with them, as is his grandparents. Another part of the coterie is Ivo’s cousin and her son JJ. The story alternates between the differing perspectives of Ray and JJ, and it is an effective narrative device skillfully handled. As Ray tries to get close enough to each Janko family member to try and understand something of his mysterious ward’s disappearance, JJ is painfully disturbed by the growing suspicions he has of his family and that a lot of things are just not right. Ray is also haunted by a failed marriage to someone he is still in thrall to, and the situation is further complicated by his growing affection for one of the Janko’s. JJ is caught between conflicting feelings of love and devotion to his quirky family, while at the same time wondering about the practicality and weirdness of it all. But how dangerous are the Jankos? Will they resort to the ultimate crime to cover up something, or are they just a misunderstood lot who mean what they say? Is Rose even alive? Ray’s and JJ’s furtive attempts at resolving these questions forms the pulse of the story and it’s anyone’s guess as to where it will all lead to.
The language is deceptively simple and quick to read thus making it a book which can be sampled by any level of reader. However, the author is a master at working the intricacies of the tale and characters and kept me on tenterhooks for the most part. The various characters and their stories are developed well enough to make us invest in the story which unfolds. And when it does finally unfold, it’s definitely a wild twist which may be seen as outrageously impossible by some, but the skill at which the story is developed will probably win most of the readers over. Personally, I loved it. I highly recommend this thriller set in slightly unusual surroundings to everyone.