Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti: AKA if Charles Dickens and Tim Burton were to breed.

The Good Thief. Hannah Tinti (2009).
NY: The Dial Press. ISBN: 0385337450

If Charles Dickens and Tim Burton could travel through time and space defying laws of physics, logic, even reproductive biology, I’m fairly certain that Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief would be the resulting lovechild. Filled with rich and colorful down-on-their-luck Dickensonian characters (Mrs. Figg, anyone?) and much of the dark, grimy, grotesque flavor that characterizes Burton’s works, this book has the legs to stand on its own as a beautiful piece of historical fiction. Or at least I think it is historical fiction, as I never seemed to be able to figure out where or when it was taking place. We’ll call it Ficstorical Fiction. I’m pretty sure it might be Colonial America…but Tinti doesn’t need to specify for us to get that it’s a back in the day buffet. It would be wise (and I’ll sound smart/actually use my university degree – thanks Prof. Thompson! – for a hot minute) to identify our protagonist and this novel for exactly who he/what this is: a picaresque novel of the nth degree - in which you never are really quite sure that things will end well for our big-hearted, down-on-his-luck and scraping by on the skin of his teeth protagonist. Irregardless (making it happen, Websters), Tinti is a masterful and beautiful writer, creating a three dimensional world and characters who can command her readers to shiver, shudder, sigh…dance fools, dance!

A one-handed boy baby is abandoned at monastery orphanage. Said one-handed baby boy grows into 12 year old one handed boy – Ren. Ren has no memories of life before the monastery and only a scrap of shirt left with the letters R E and N embroidered on it, hence his quirky name. Ren doesn’t want to be sold to the army and also is an unusually good pick-pocket/thief, despite having only one hand to pillage and plunder with. Not so surprisingly in our ficstorical “two-hands-are-better-than-one” pastoral world, nobody has jumped to adopt him. That is, until one day, a man named Benjamin Nabb appears out of the blue claiming to be Ren’s long lost and charming brother, armed with a cockamamie story Ren doesn’t quite buy but goes along with to the get. the. heck. out. Turns out Benjamin isn’t, in fact, Ren’s brother. He is a smooth criminal who, along with his alcoholic buddy Tom, steal to survive, and have recently clued into a new, lucrative adventure: body snatching. As one can imagine, this leads to a world of shenanigans and trouble, where things are not what they appear to be, where Ren is still hoping to find out who his parents were, and in which everyone’s secrets will be slowly unraveled layer by layer before their very own eyes (and ours), until the very last period on the final page.

Best for: Older readers 16+ This is a work filled with richly hewn, and vibrant but gritty characters. Moreover, while the story is seemingly simple it is actual complex in that it reads as mystery, with clues left strewn throughout for savvy readers (ie. mature) to identify. Because I feel the grittiness of the characters and the dark undertones will alienate younger readers, and because of the cumulative memory required on the part of readers, I feel this book is best suited towards older readers. Younger readers can totally read it – there’s really nothing to quibble about aside from a few murders and body snatching incidents. It may just be a book they read very differently than they will with a few more years under their belt.

Book Talk Hook: Read aloud from the grave-robbing scene in which a character is not quite dead yet. Scary! Supsense!

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