I stumbled upon, and ended up reading, this book in a sort of round about way. I picked up the hardback of The Good Thief at a library sale sometime back and it sat on my shelf in a pile of books I meant to get to at some point. I had vaguely shelved it as young adult and only had a slight grasp on the plot. I had a sense that it was well reviewed and a creative novel. That was about it.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book, here is the publishers synopsis:
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.
Recently, I was looking for audio books to listen to in the car and stumbled upon the CDs and checked them out. I began listening to them and was nearing the end when a scratched disc made it impossible to listen without skipping chunks. So I pulled the book off the shelf and finished it that way.
I will confess to mixed feelings about this one.
The characters were really well done and the story was creative and had enough twists and turns to keep you reading. But I am not really a big fan of historical fiction and the mixing of styles was just a tad off for me. The gothic campiness wore thin at times even as the narrator did an excellent job of brining the characters to life.
I enjoyed listening to/reading it but on occasion I did wonder where it was all headed and how in the world it was going to come to some resolution
I very much liked Ren as a character and as a voice, and his relationships with Benji was well done, but the other characters eventually seemed too much; too over-the-top. From Mrs. Sands who can’t help but scream all the time, to her dwarf brother, to Dolly the murderer giant best friend, to Mr. McGlinty who seems bent and cruel just for the sake of it.
The writing is well done and the story has a great deal of imagination and creativity. But perhaps too much in the end as it seems to spin out of control and never really land in a coherent place.
Perhaps, it tried to hard to be a story about stories made up of references, allusions and stock characters from adventure stories and classic literature. The way Ren comes to see Ben as a sort of magician who can conjure up a story for any circumstances and thus escape every scrape and potential tragedy is well done and forms a thread throughout the novel. But that is not enough to carry the weight Tinti wants it to.
I thought this review at Goodreads put it well:
Though Tinti has created a compelling world for Ren, and smartly populated it with references to great adventure and intrigue novels of the past, the tale rings flat. In a tale that insists stories have great meaning and power, Ren’s story ultimately wields little power save that of reference to and reflection of other great stories. References to David Copperfield, Kidnapped, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations do not a powerful story make. The Good Thief has merits, and is a well-crafted, page-turning adventure tale of a type not often published today.
I thought this Amazon review also captures this perspective:
“The Good Thief” is a beautifully written book, lyrical in parts. Tinti does a fine job describing just how hard life could be for the poor and dispossessed, children especially. The smallest things – a shiny rock, a long-broken toy, a book – take on huge meaning for Ren and so for us. There is a lot to like in the way the book is written.
What makes “The Good Thief” disappointing is its ultimately farfetched plot. Like “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” for example, “Thief” is wonderfully set up in the first half, only to careen out of control towards the end.
Lest I be accused of offering only negative takes, although I think the above contain both praise and criticism, allow me to quote Ron Hogan’s take:
Because of its youthful protagonist, there’s been some talk about whether this is a YA novel that’s good enough for adults or a “grown-up” literary novel that’s straightforward enough for teens–whatever side of that fence you want to fall on, the simple truth is that this is a beautiful and powerful novel that will reward ANYONE who chooses to read it. In a setting that somewhat resembles 19th-century New England, except filled with quasi-fantastical elements, the story of Ren, a one-handed boy who is “rescued” from an orphanage only to find himself plunged into a life of not-always-well-executed crime, will instantly take hold of your imagination. Some reviewers have mentioned Dickens and Twain; I’d like to float Herman Melville by way of The Princess Bride by you and see if that’ll make you give it a try. Because you really should.
My recommendation is to judge based on your own taste. Rather a cop-out I am afraid but true I think because it depends on the relative value you place on things. If you enjoy the campy and gothic sensibility and understand the plausibility and some thin characters are to be sacrificed in the effort to produce this particular style and effect. that is one approach. If you don’t find the trade-off worth it that is another.
Personally, I can see where Ron is coming from but lean more toward the first two perspectives. Still an enjoyable experience and worth it just to see it play out. And I really do recommend the audio version because, as Publishers Weekly notes, it is very well done:
William Dufris handles this book as it was intended—as a sendup of several genres. He brings to life Tinti’s family of orphans, grave robbers, scam artists, drunks and assorted freaks, narrating as though telling terrifying tales to Boy Scouts around a campfire. His children are squeaky-voiced, his adults harsh and raspy. He moves easily through successions of melodramatic scenes alternately ghoulish, maudlin, violent, gothic and hokey. Adults who love high camp and young adults who savor tales of blood and gore will eat it up.
So if like me you vaguely remember all the praise and wondered what all the hubbub was about, check it out.