When I was Invisible (by Dorothy Koomson)

Dorothy Koomson is a powerful and thought-provoking writer. Since I first came across one of her books, about eight years ago, I have gradually acquired more of them. They’re often shocking, and in several I’ve had moments where I wanted to give up. But when I keep going, I’ve found them all well worth the effort.

I put ‘When I was Invisible’ on my wishlist a while ago, and was given it for my birthday a few months ago. I started reading it during a busy period, for twenty minutes or so at bedtime each day; I often read far more than I’d intended to in one sitting, and by the end I could scarcely put it down.

The two main protagonists, Nika and Roni, have been friends since they were eight years old. The prologue shows them at school in 1988, when Roni arrives as a new girl and learns that she has the same name (with a slight spelling difference) as Niki. They have an instant rapport, which develops into being ‘best friends’ when they start ballet lessons together, and are amongst the few who are determined to take it seriously, and succeed as dancers.

The storyline moves around through the decades, from 1988 to 2016, when they are both in their mid-thirties, and I found this quite confusing at first. Section One begins with Nika in Birmingham, reporting a crime. She is evidently known by a completely different name. We don’t learn what exactly the crime is until much later in the book. Just as the beginning story takes an unexpected slant, we’re whizzed back to 1999 where she meets a smooth-talking man who’s clearly attracted to her….

As well as being non-chronological, the story is told alternately from Nika’s and Roni’s points of view. I found it hard to distinguish them at first, even though it’s soon clear that they have had very different lives as adults. One has had a high-profile relationship with a wealthy man, the other has been a nun (oddly, in a monastery rather than a convent). The latter spends a lot of the book trying to find her former friend - it’s clear that something terrible happened that led to the parting of the ways - while the other is trying to start a new life, not for the first time.

Their very different adult lives made it gradually easier to tell who was whom, although I didn’t feel that either was entirely three-dimensional. That didn’t matter too much, as Dorothy Koomson’s strength is in her plotting, rather than characterisation. The story builds up with just the right amount of tension, revealing exactly what needs to be told at each point, until the dramatic climax which reveals not just untold secrets, but unexpected motivations that make sense of everything.

Some of the book is, as I’ve come to expect with this author, shocking. Not that the author uses either gory or intimate scenes. Instead, she excels in letting the reader know what’s happening without having to reveal gratuitous details. Even so, I found some sections very disturbing. There was a point, perhaps a quarter of the way through, where I almost wished I had never started it. For anyone who has been through the kinds of issues described, it could be too traumatic to read.

Underlying the entire story is the importance of truth, of standing up for one’s friends, of being open and honest with authority figures. I hope that older teenagers reading this will realise how vital it is to be truthful, even if they are afraid of the consequences. I hope that parents and teachers will become better at spotting signs of serious problems, of taking the time to listen to young people, of giving them safe places and times to talk.

I learned a lot that I would rather not have known about the desperate lengths some homeless people will go to, and about the manipulative nature of those who would exploit those in need. There’s more bad language than I’m comfortable with, but in many cases it adds to the unpleasantness of some of the people. I have no idea if the author herself went through any of the experiences described, or whether it was all researched: to me, it seemed all too real.

Primarily intended for women, this is not a light read. Despite being disturbing on more than one level, this is a powerful and page-turning book that I would recommend to any older teenager or adult who doesn’t mind sometimes shocking scenes.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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