The Good Thief

The Bookshelf, by Rebekah Hall.

Ever since Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief was published three years ago, the reader reactions toward the book have been mixed, usually in opposite extremes: either it’s the best thing since Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson (isn’t everything?), or it is the most grotesque, pointless narrative that that reader has ever read. As always, the truth is somewhere in-between those two extremes.

There is actually something to be said for a Dickens/Stevenson comparison. Unlike ninety-five percent of the cases where that comparison is used, here it makes sense because The Good Thief very obviously mimics both authors.  Stevenson was an action/adventure novelist, and his name is probably the first thing to pop into your head when you read the summary on the book’s back cover.  The real story, though, isn’t so much an adventure novel like Treasure Island as it is a wandering drama, and in that respect it is much more a Dickensian novel.

The storyline is also very Dickensian, working like a retelling of Oliver Twist in colonial America.  The orphan in this case is a boy named Ren who lives in the monastery of St. Anthony’s in New England.  Like Oliver, Ren begins his story by being taken under the wing of a criminal, a con-man extraordinaire and general jack-of-all-trades named Benjamin Nab, who arrives at the monastery one day claiming to be Ren’s long-lost brother.

As much as the book imitates Stevenson and Dickens, though, its storyline is a good deal darker than anything either author wrote. Both authors preferred to create heroes who begin innocent and good and pretty well remain so throughout most of the book, always being rescued before desperation or circumstance forced them to do anything truly evil.  Ren, who begins life missing his left-hand and suffers from kleptomania, has no such luxury. Shortly after Benjamin adopts him, he makes it quite clear to Ren exactly what kind of man he is, and if Ren plans to be fed and sheltered, he had better learn to live with it.

So is the book, then, grotesque like the other reviews claimed? The short answer is yes, it is, but that’s not the full answer.  Just because a book is grotesque does not necessarily mean it’s bad; like any other book, what mainly matters is the characters themselves.

There is a scene fairly early on in which the book differentiates between two different types of grotesque.  It is the one good scene that the semi-villainous Father John actually gets, when he tries to comfort Ren about his lack of a left-hand by telling him that it is spiritual deformity that one needs to look out for, not physical. While The Good Thief abounds with physically deformed characters, like giants, dwarves, harelips, etc., it is usually the physically fit and healthy who are the unrepentant and unredeemed villains.

In fact, it is also interesting to note that Father John is the only evil religious figure in the entire book. The Good Thief has a strange relationship with religion in general, its depictions of both Catholicism and Protestantism alike occasionally bordering on superstition, but its overall attitude is a positive one.  His little knowledge of Catholicism is the one thing Ren clings to in the darkest and worst of it all.  Yet, there are also scenes in which religion is treated as just an interesting sideshow, briefly thinking about it before tossing it aside for the next attraction.  Such moments, like Ren contemplating God’s mercy, beg to be delved into more deeply than they are.

Unlike Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or other modern Dickensian novels, The Good Thief does not even try to imitate Dickens’ writing style, or any style from the period.  Instead, Tinti employs a blunt and to-the-point style all her own, which combined with the “grotesque” element brings out a sort of gothic air to it. The narrative runs smoothly, and the way Tinti incorporates the dialogue into it, particularly the characters’ thoughts, is clever. The only time she really trips up is when she tries to do too much with too little. Hers is one of the very few cases where writing a longer book would have served her better than the shorter one that she did write; as The Good Thief gets closer to the end, it begins to speed up, as if Tinti had planned the book to be a particular number of pages, leaving some characters to repent a little too early and unresolved subplots to just dangle.

Although it can be compared to Dickens, The Good Thief is still not Dickens himself.  Not much is, so one could hardly expect it to be. The story has its faults, and whether they’re enough to dissuade you from the whole is up to the individual reader, but the book certainly doesn’t deserve to be called bad. The book only asks that the reader be patient and not try to make it what it’s not.

Rebekah is a senior in high school who loves reading, writing, or anything that contains a story and a puzzle. She runs the review blog “And a Sweet Sound it Made” –

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