The Good Thief

Hannah Tinti

Publication: The Dial Press (2008), Hardcover,

336 pages Publication date:2008

This review is of the as-yet unreleased “The Good Thief”, a novel by Hannah Tinti and published by The Dial Press. It becomes available in the fall of 2008. I obtained an advance copy via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. Thanks to The Dial Press for its participation in the program as well as LibraryThing for making it possible.

This novel represents the first full-length offering from the author Hannah Tinti. It shows, from its very beginning, some fair promise. Yet though many elements of this book revealed this potential with intriguing language and vivid imagery, the hand of a first-time novelist seems all too apparent as the course of our tale unfolds.

We follow Ren, an orphan who begins in the care of the monks of St Anthony’s. They seem like a harmless bunch, if less than totally compassionate to the plight of their charges; those children not adopted are conscripted into the military and rather forcefully consigned to this fate whether they will it or no.Young Ren stands out even amongst the other orphans as an especially difficult case since he is missing one of his hands. We are treated to a poignant scene of one of the brothers discouraging a kindly seeming farmer from taking Ren away due to his infirmity. “You won’t want that one.” This seems, forgive the unavoidable pun, rather heavy handed. Ren seems fairly resigned to his condition, having known no other, but his fear of being left unchosen manifests in a tendency for petty theft which sometimes earns him the lash.

Then one afternoon, the miraculous happens and Ren is claimed by a stranger purporting to be his uncle. The fellow asserts the missing hand is proof that this lad is in fact the child he seeks. The monks let this character have off with Ren with nothing more than a faretheewell and a copy of a book Ren had been idly inclined to swipe during the interview between the monk and supposed long-lost uncle. Once the pair leaves the orphanage it becomes apparent rather quickly that Ren’s “uncle” may not be exactly what he claims, and that indeed he is a bit of a reprobate. His interest in the orphan child seems to be rooted primarily in the sympathy Ren’s missing hand can arouse in the common passerby. More, he is delighted by Ren’s apparent aptitude for theft since, as it happens, our good man Benjamin Nab (cringe) happens to be quite the burglar himself.

From this still rather engaging beginning, things somehow go astray. What at first seems to be a novel capable of interesting scope and questions of morality against a backdrop of desperation instead becomes a tale narrow in the extreme and focused to a rather distracting degree on all things grave; by which I do not mean serious.

We are shuttled in time and place between a boardinghouse, a graveyard, and a mousetrap factory, with the sometime addition of the hospital where the remains our heroes have begun to unearth for profit are to be delivered. The intensity with which this novel focuses on the details of graverobbing make it not for the faint of heart, and yet rather than seeming truly creepy or eerie, instead just feels awkward. Like lingering too long over a consoling embrace.

Ultimately I feel this novel loses its focus, or rather, that its focus becomes diffuse and something it ought not have been. If what we were looking for was an amusing tale of orphan scamp makes good, many of the detours in the tale were unnecessary and distracted from that vein. Likewise if we were seeking the heartwarming tale of orphan scamp finding his true family, we are not presented with an account that really wins our loyal attention. Finally, if we were meant to be engaged in the story of orphan scamp learning the trade of graverobbing, we could have done without the heart-of-gold-makes-good-finds-his-family element.

A not unworthy effort for a first novel, it would have benefited from a clearer sense of identity and a lighter touch.

Rating: ◊◊½