Review: The Good Thief

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

I’ll be honest–I’ve completely forgotten where the recommendation for The Good Thief came from. I believe I saw it mentioned, but not reviewed, in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, but I’m not sure. In any case, it was on the List and available at my current local library. I had to pick it up.

The Good Thief is the story of Ren, an orphan at St. Anthony’s in New England during the Industrial Revolution. Like most orphans, Ren is curious about why he was abandoned. Unlike most orphans, Ren is missing his left hand, which has kept anyone from adopting him until a mysterious gentleman named Benjamin Nab comes along and talks the brothers into letting him take Ren with him. Benjamin is a magnificent liar (to Ren’s great disappointment), a thief, and a conman. Before long, Ren finds himself pulled into the questionable adventures of Benjamin and Tom, his right hand man. But their usual crime is interrupted when they end up in North Umbrage, a strange and haunted town ruled with an iron fist by a man named Silas McGinty.

As the protagonist, Ren is a marvelous character. He’s a devout Catholic in a world of Protestants, constantly overwhelmed by but determined to live up to Benjamin’s expectations, innocently ignorant, and childishly imaginative. Benjamin is equally well developed, a dashing and unscrupulous thief who lies his way in and out of situations. Their relationship is the heart and soul of the novel–who is Benjamin and why did he adopt Ren out of St. Anthony’s? While they’re not as well developed as Ren and Benjamin, most of the supporting cast holds up quite well. The only two women, Mrs. Sands and a girl known as the Harelip, are properly formidable.The only characters I couldn’t understand or see a reason for were Brom and Ichy, friends of Ren’s from St. Anthony’s.

Tinti has quite a gift for a compact plot, which certainly explains her previous publication, a book of short stories entitled Animal Crackers. Each scene has a point and purpose, and each plot point, however disparate, is neatly tied up with a bow at the end. It’s fun to read and watch her work her magic. However, this compactness can be a drawback. At best, The Good Thief reads like a fable or a throwback to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At worst, it reads like a young adult novel for the lower end of the age spectrum. I think Tinti is well equipped to do this same interweaving for a much bigger story, but she’s simply used to a smaller canvas. While I enjoyed The Good Thief, I just wished there had been more.

Ren’s imagination gives Tinti an outlet for her descriptive talents, which peters out towards the end, as she focuses more on the plot rather than the atmosphere. Ren’s first view of the sea is especially breathtaking, especially through Ren’s sheltered eyes. A creepy hospital gave me the chills once I realized exactly what a certain display was. This all adds to the slightly grotesque atmosphere of the world Ren inhabits. I can only hope this sort of subtle, elegant grotesque world was what Jack O’Connell was trying for with The Resurrectionist–a world where supposed freaks of all kinds can redeem themselves.

Bottom line: An elegant and subtly grotesque novel, The Good Thief feels like a fable at best and like a young adult novel at worst, due to Tinti’s hesitance with a larger canvas than her usual short stories. Still, The Good Thief is well worth a read for Ren, its marvelous protagonist, and its neat, tight plot.

I rented this book from the public library.

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