When this book first came out, somehow the description wasn't enough to lure me in. It was during the Audiobook Week this year that it popped it's little head up again, demanding to be read because of the narration. From audiophiles that have heard it all, this book was deemed a gem. Not from one person, but a whole sea of them. I took the hint and ordered it. I believe I may have found my new favorite voice.
Synopsis: A not-quite-successful, soon-to-be divorced private investigator is lying in a hospital, paralyzed and nearly comatose. Ray Lovell has suffered from some sort of attack, resulting in a car accident, and he believes it was a result of his current case. He slowly recalls the events that led up to the accident that almost killed him.
Ray (who is half Gypsy) was approached by a Gypsy man who is concerned that he hasn't heard from his daughter, Rose Janko, in six years. She married, left with her husband's family, and was never heard of again. The Janko family, Gypsy as well, claims Rose ran away soon after having a child who was afflicted with a genetic illness that runs in the family and is usually fatal. But as Ray probes deeper into the vague stories and curious personalities of the Janko family, he senses that they know more than they are admitting.
We also hear from JJ Janko, 14 year-old cousin of Rose's abandoned son Christo. JJ provides the troubled but innocent perspective of the Gypsy lifestyle in 1980's England, and the burden of helping to care for a very sick little boy who likely may die. The embarrassment of not having an inside toilet, of never being able to invite a friend over, the transient nature of their lives...this old-fashioned notion of the Gypsy heritage clashes drastically with a modern society where a young man wants to be accepted.
As Ray attempts to solve the mystery of Rose, he develops and navigates through complicated relationships with JJ, sickly Christo, Rose's erratic husband Ivo, the Janko patriarch Tene, and Tene's younger sister Lulu, the hot tamale with the bright red stilettos. This is not only a story about a culture of people who remain to most of the world invisible, but of family, love, loyalty, secrets and relationships...a unique hybrid of multiple genres and a literary conundrum.
My thoughts: What was really fun in my listening experience of this book is that I had no earthly idea what it was about. I certainly read the reviews but didn't remember, and that worked for me. I'm not sure if I would have ever imagined that I was interested in the Gypsy culture...I see them in the streets in Poland, and I am both annoyed with their persistence and sad for the children who are forced to "work" for their livelihoods. But once I was plunged into this world, I was hooked. The mystery was compelling and unpredictable, the relationships were confusing and complex and even a little endearing. This story had it all, and was rich and fulfilling.
I was beguiled with this knack that Penney has in the story for throwing in questionable little...facts, I guess, or maybe little baby red herrings that to a reader of mysteries, tweaks the brain and makes you wonder. Many of these threads don't go anywhere, and it left me wanting more. I wasn't resentful, it just made my synapses zip around a little faster. It reminded quite a bit of Tana French in that way, and I know many of you know what a complement that is coming from me. (I got a little feeling of serendipity when I saw that French had interviewed Penney on Amazon.)
I know I am going on more than I usually do, but I must also address the texture of the two narratives. Ray's narrative reflected his grizzled, world-weary soul but earnestness. He is damaged, he has woman issues, he wants human connection, but is rough around the edges. JJ's narrative was the perfect contrast...he was completely adorable. How often do you find a 14 year-old in a novel that is adorable? He was a good kid with a difficult life, he has seen more than most kids his age but still held on to his innocence. I was fully invested in the both of them, but I would have taken JJ home with me.
A bunch of gushing about the audio production: This audio was narrated by the most flipping amazing Dan Stevens. For those of you addicted to Downton Abbey, yes THAT Dan Stevens. I can't even express to you the delight in listening to this man effortlessly navigate through the accents, the personalities, the nuances. I haven't had this much fun since Lenny Henry. I had heard him narrate "The Angel's Game", which was a great audio, but he was in top form here. So Stevens joins the very short and esteemed list of narrators I would chase down in any scenario.
Audiobook length: 11 hours, 23 minutes (416 pages)
5 out of 5 stars