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The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A lovely Oliver Twist story set in 19th century New England. The writing is assured and comfortable. Whiffs of Larry McMurtry's lyrical descriptions of a young country mingle with Jim Dodge style surreal touches to memorable effect.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 0755307461

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An Oprah Tantalizing Beach Read 2009

Ren is missing his left hand. Neither Ren nor any of the brothers at the orphanage know what happened. It had already gone when he was left at St Anthony's as a tiny baby. Father John says he'll never be adopted because of it. So when Benjamin Nab comes along and announces he is Ren's long-lost brother, Ren is sent along with him. Benjamin tells stories. He's a nineteenth century New England Del Boy. And he and his partner Tom introduce Ren to the art of the scam. From fake wonder cures to thieving, all the way up to body-snatching, light-fingered Ren gets closer to finding out what really happened to his hand. And as the truth closes in, he needs to decide... is he a good thief, or a bad one?

I did enjoy The Good Thief - much more than I thought I would. I can't say as the New England Oliver Twist motif particularly appealed before I started reading, but Tinti has such an ease in her writing that I felt drawn in and happily at home from the very first page. There are no silly pretensions; the style is sure, elegant, precise and seems so comfortable and assured it's difficult to believe at times that this is a first novel.

At the bare bones of the narrative is a simple picaresque fable- orphan with a good heart but understandably thieving fingers goes on an odyssey in which he proves his worth to the world. Tinti doesn't try to make any more or less of it than that, and again, I was blown away by the confidence. The great moments come with the book's total honesty - the characters are laid bare before you, nineteenth century New England doesn't need any exposition, it's there in all its poverty, backwardness, foibles and glory, rising from the pages. It has a big, big heart, this novel, and in this way it reminded me of Larry McMurtry's western epics. Or perhaps the film equivalent is the Coen brothers' classic O Brother, Where Art Thou?

There's a wonderful sense of the absurd, always keeping anything from feeling schmaltzy or pious. Tinti's portrait of her characters is open and honest, but they, of course, are rarely honest. Mrs Sands, the landlady, is a real pantomime character and straight out of Dickens. Just to give us some Jim Dodge surrealism, Tinti adds a dwarf brother living on the roof. We never learn his name, but it should have been Rumpelstiltskin.

Before you know it, you have fallen in love with every character in this wonderful novel. Don't miss it.

My thanks to the nice people at Headline for sending the book. We also have a review of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.

The surreal elements in The Good Thief run wild in Fup by Jim Dodge, while those who enjoyed the picaresque narrative might enjoy the poetic The Pesthouse by Jim Crace.

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