Sunday, March 17, 2013

Boys' life

It took me a long time to get through Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, as I probably listened to it off and on for about a month.  I don't recommend this as a way to read anything, but the setting, characters and plot of this novel remained vivid over the long haul. There was more than one occasion when I thought, while listening, that I had no idea where this book was headed.  That's a good thing.

This is the story of the orphan Ren, abandoned as a baby to the tender mercies of the order of St. Anthony through a one-way swinging door. Ren -- so named because of the tag on the inside of the shirt he was wearing when he arrived -- is now 12 years old and he's rapidly losing faith he will be adopted. He fears the fate of the boys who never leave the monastery: involuntary recruitment into the army.  Ren is a smart, attractive boy who has a lot of appeal to the people who come looking for a son to adopt, until they see his missing left hand, with its neatly stitched scar tissue over the wrist. Then, the larger-than-life Benjamin Nab arrives, claiming Ren as his long-lost brother. He sweeps Ren up and out into the world -- a world of con artists, grave robbers, giants and dwarves, a town where all the men are dead, a cruel mousetrap magnate, and perhaps even the answer to the mystery of who Ren is.

This book is dark; it's terrifying what Benjamin Nab and his alcoholic former-schoolteacher partner are up to and what they make Ren do to help them. The emotional (not to mention the physical) wear-and-tear on the boy is cruel and hard to listen to.  But the story is a true gothic wild ride. I was riveted by the situations (digging up bodies for use by the local surgeon or the dangerous production of the mousetraps), the characters (beside the giant and the dwarf, there's a girl with a harelip, a buyer and seller of teeth, a deaf landlady with a heart of gold, and a gentle horse [who deserved a better fate -- I'm just warning the animal lovers out there]), and the plot, which propels you through one bizarre setting after another until we reach the aptly named town of North Umbrage where the complicated strands of Ren's origins come to a head. In its unspecified 18th or 19th century setting (somewhere in North America), the bizarre characters and all the coincidences, The Good Thief seems very Dickensian.  I like Dickens.

The story isn't particularly original -- boy goes on journey to discover who he is -- and the discovery of Ren's parentage seemed logical (if you accept that books like this have a logic), yet I found myself surprised, but the getting there is highly entertaining.

The somewhat squeaky-voiced William Dufris narrates the novel. With that slightly strained hoarseness, he has a knack of capturing the characterization of frightened pre-adolescent boys (in a much gentler setting here [and I said almost the exact same thing about his voice ... embarrassing!]) and his creation of Ren is another in this vein. His reading -- filled with desperation and fear -- evokes a significant amount of sympathy for our young hero. He is an experienced reader, skilled at reading both narrative and dialogue and he keeps the story moving along. There's nothing surprising or innovative in his interpretation, but it suffices. A reader who specializes in more dramatic narration might make a lot more of the wildly baroque characters, but it's not fair to criticize what the audiobook might have been.

Dufris does make some differentiation in the largely male characters who populate this novel -- louder, lighter, more gravelly, giant-voiced or dwarf-voiced. The deaf landlady shouts (I believe in all caps in the print version) and this is remarkably unpleasant to listen to. Although I enjoyed the little bit of love she showered on poor Ren, I wasn't too dismayed when she ended up in the hospital with ... (well, some 19th century disease from which she recovers).

The Good Thief was recognized by the Alex Award committee of YALSA in 2009, an annual list of recommended books for teens written/published for an adult audience. (Just thinking about that committee's reading list boggles the mind.) Since I still enjoy books for teenagers, but have sworn off the ones actually written for them this year, these lists may be a good place to look for some good reads/listens. Not that I'm having any trouble finding books to read.

[The photograph of this historical mousetrap from the Museum der Schwalm was taken by Massel tow and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.  Here's the Google translated version on how it works:  "The mouse enters the chamber barred bottom left, lured by a bait and triggers the trap door. The only possible way leads through the wire tube vertically upwards. If it continues to run to the right, she falls into the water-filled bowl and drowned." I'm pretty sure that these are not the mousetraps made by the evil Mr. McGinty.]

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
Narrated by William Dufris
Brilliance Audio, 2009.  10:46

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