Random House, 2008, 336 pages
Twelve year-old Ren is missing his left hand. How it was lost is a mystery that Ren has been trying to solve for his entire life, as well as who his parents are, and why he was abandoned as an infant at Saint Anthony’s Orphanage for boys. He longs for a family to call his own and is terrified of the day he will be sent alone into the world.
But then a young man named Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren’s long-lost brother, and his convincing tale of how Ren lost his hand and his parents persuades the monks at the orphanage to release the boy and to give Ren some hope. But is Benjamin really who he says he is? Journeying through a New England of whaling towns and meadowed farmlands, Ren is introduced to a vibrant world of hardscrabble adventure filled with outrageous scam artists, grave robbers, and petty thieves. If he stays, Ren becomes one of them. If he goes, he’s lost once again. As Ren begins to find clues to his hidden parentage he comes to suspect that Benjamin not only holds the key to his future, but to his past as well.
The Good Thief is reminiscent of classic adventure tales about plucky orphans like Kim, Treasure Island, and Oliver Twist. Hannah Tinti adds a bit of Melville and Hawthorne Americana to the mix, with a side of Stephen King New England creepiness. It's about an orphan named Ren, missing a hand, and thus nearly unadoptable, who grows up in the St. Anthony's home for boys until he is adopted by a rogue named Benjamin Nab, with a wild story of his long-lost brother. Nab, it turns out, has plans for Ren, mostly involving thieving, conning, and a bit of gravedigging. That plus the explicit violence makes this a darker tale than most of those 19th century classics, but it still delivers the expected resolution with revelations about hidden relations and the protagonist finding a family of sorts.
Now with all that literary foundation, you'd think this would be a great book. I can't quite give it the label "great" though — it's a debut novel and much better than a lot of debut novels I've read, but a few things kept it in the "good" category and out of the "great."
First, the writing, while superior to the formulaic 8th grade prose targeted at a lowest-common-denominator YA audience, isn't developed enough to really elevate this to literary excellence. I also thought the plot was pretty straightforward, with a linear resolution that was logical but never went anywhere really unexpected.
Also, too many relationships seemed sketched in in a manner that expected the reader to take them for granted, with characters who are entertaining and colorful but mostly for a handful of memorable traits that substitute for character development. The fierce landlady Mrs. Sands, who is hard of hearing and thus even her "whispers" are shouts, but who turns into the mother figure of the book. Dolly, a "new man" risen from the grave, who is completely unapologetic about his murderousness ("I was made for it" as he tells Ren), but inexplicably decides that he and Ren should be BFFs. "The Harelip," one of the "mousetrap girls" working at the mousetrap factory, who serves as a love interest, inasmuch as a peck on the cheek delivered to a twelve-year-old can be considered a romance. She, too, decides to help Ren (at considerable risk to herself) for no other reason than that helping plucky orphans is the sort of thing people do in adventure novels about plucky orphans.
That said, it is a good book, and I recommend it, especially if you enjoy Kipling or Stevenson or Dickens but would like to read something in that vein but a bit more modern.
Where The Good Thief shines is Hannah Tinti's imagination. This is not really a fantasy novel, and could almost be historical fiction, but there is an element of the bizarre that, I hesitate to call it "magical realism," but when you've got a giant dead guy wandering around killing people, and this is just accepted as a rather bizarre but not particularly unbelievable thing, and isn't the point or even a major subplot in the book, it's kind of like Tinti decided to pretend that Mary Shelley wrote a true-life memoir. Then she adds a villainous mousetrap factory owner, and a dwarf who lives on the roof of a boarding house and comes down the chimney to filch food from the kitchen, and Ren's childhood, which takes the usual hard-luck orphan story and adds a missing hand (which is the source of several colorful and gruesome stories about how he might have lost his hand as a baby before we get the real one). Plus there's the gravedigging and the violence, so if I were to compare Tinti to yet another author, it would perhaps be Neil Gaiman, who uses similar dark fantasy devices even in ostensibly children's stories.
I quite liked it, and would be happy to read something else by this author. Indeed, while I think Ren the plucky one-handed orphan would quickly become tiresome in a series, I would rather like to see a more adult novel featuring Ren grown up.
Have you read The Good Thief?
What did you think of this review?
Verdict: A fine debut novel that isn't really YA even if the main character is twelve, The Good Thief is a colorful historical adventure with a creepy, almost horror vibe, mixed with your usual orphan bildungsroman. Not unflawed and it probably won't make my list of favorite reads this year, but it was worth the time and Hannah Tinti is an author I'll look for more from.
My complete list of book reviews.