Friday, October 10, 2008

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

A charming novel described as Dickensian by quite a few critics because of its oddball characters, child protagonist, and violations of labor laws...but it's not an imitation, it has its own more fantastical bent--with a dwarf living on a rooftop, a mousetrap factory, and amputated limbs galore. It's as if Dickens had watched Twin Peaks. (actually I don't know why I used that comparision since I've never seen Twin Peaks; it's as if Dickens had watched a Jean Jeunet film.)

Because I'm teaching Writing for Young Adults this semester I've become more conscious of how child protagonists are presented in novels for adults--and they seem to fit into two categories--the precociously verbal or the eerily quiet (in books for kids the kids have more range, some are even of only average intelligence). Ren, the protagonist one-armed thief of the title, is more of the eerily quiet variety (though he talks when he needs to). And his quietness creates a kind of serious, mature aura around him that helps keep him interesting despite his youth.

But what I really want to point out about this novel is how tightly woven it is. A lot of writers will know Charles Baxter's idea of echoes (he might even call them rhyming echoes, I forget) in fiction, in which certain objects or ideas or places get used more than once. It's especially noticeable in short fiction where the objects are fewer and therefore recycled more. But this novel makes brilliant use of that technique. And interestingly as you move through the novel and start to expect that things will reappear unexpectably, it helps make some fairly unbelievable occurrences feel more believable. Because you accept that this is a world in which nothing disappears for good--say for example if you pee into a jar and put that jar of pee into a desk drawer then when that desk drawer gets opened three chapters later that jar of pee will still be there and it will be useful.

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