A few months back, I devoured Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley in less than two days. It was one of thohse cases when you just absolutely fall in love with a book and immedietly began searching for other books by the same author. The Good theif is certainly good; a retelling of Oliver Twist, but set in the US, and instead of the London slum, we explore a world of conmen and body snatching. But despite these changes, the book never really manages to step out from Dickens’ shadow and become as brilliant as I thought it would be.
Ren grows up in a orphanage run by monks in the 19th century New England. The home is walled of from the outside world (the local protestants try to burn the place down almost as often as they deposit their unwanted children there), but the boys are very aware of the fact that unless some goodhearted people adopts them, they will be sent to the US army (it is unclear to them what enlistment would entail, but the boys are absolutely terrified). Ren desperately hopes for an adoption by one of the kind farmers that come by occasionally, but knows this will not happen as he has no left hand and is thus unsuited for farm work. How he lost his hand he does not know, but he is sufficiently nimble with his right hand to become the best thief in the orphanage and he stills from the brothers and the children as whenever he feels like it (the kleptomania is clearly a reaction to the loveless care provided by the monks and the physical abuse Ren must endure in their hands).
One day, the charming albeit mysterious Benjamin Nab walks into the orphanage, sees Ren and falls to his knees in front of the startled twelve-year old. Mr Nab claims that they are long lost brothers, that their parents were killed by Indians, that he has been looking for Ren and that he will take care of from now on. Only hours after they leave the orphanage however, it becomes clear to Ren that Benjamin is not his brother and that the brothers would not have given Ren into his care, if they had known his profession. Benjamin wanders from town to town making his living as through robberies, cons and the plundering of graves. He rightly believes that crippled Ren will make a fantastic beggar, and starts to train the little boy in the art of being a criminal. Ren is horrified by his new guardian’s sins, but chooses to stay with Benjamin, because although he is not the caring mother or heroic father the boy hoped for, the guy offers him a future, friendship and a sense of belonging. Along with Benjamin’s drunk, ex-schoolteacher, Tom, they set out on a journey across New England, during which Ren has to grow up fast, reconcile his religious upbringing with his new sinful profession and discover where he came from and how his hand was lost.
You should not read this book whilst eating; I did, it was a mistake. There is plenty of digging up dead bodies, removing their teeth (to sell to dentists!!) and transporting rotting corpses to hospitals in the middle of the night. It is as disgusting as it sounds and I do not think I will be able to eat meat for a at least a week…
The story’s likeness to Oliver Twist is both what I enjoyed the most about it, and what kept it from getting four stars from me. Just like in Oliver Twist, there is a mystery at the heart of the novel, and as in Oliver Twist, it the mystery surrounding Ren’s origins. Someone left him at the orphanage as a baby without a left hand. If Benjamin does not have the answers then who out there does? My guesses were actually quite close to what is revealed at the end of the novel, but the truth was not obvious from the start and it actually took me by surprise. But the destiny of Ren never felt as uncertain as Oliver’s; when reading Oliver Twist, you really feel how this child truly is at risk from starve to death alone on the streets, but never so with Ren. In this book, there is always a strong sense that Ren will survive the obstacles put in his way and the countryside of New England never really becomes menacing, no matter how many factories cemeteries we visit. It feels like Tinti is inviting us to invest in Ren, but that is hard to do when you are never actually worried for him.
Another similarity to Dickens’ story, is the number of strange, eccentric, disconcerting and funny characters that populates the story. Foremost amongst these is the rogue Benjamin who has nine lives and excels at lying to and charming those he meet. But we also get to meet a creepy dentist, a chimney climbing dwarf, a dead giant and a mad factory owner. A colorful collection of individuals, I am sure you will agree. However, they never become as funny as Dickens’ creations nor as fantastic. Perhaps I am unfair to make this comparison, but the author does invite it when she chooses a classic as her material.
All in all, The Good Thief is a good read, although not a great one. I would have expected more from Tinti, but I remain a fan of hers and hope she produces more stories I can gorge on.