Evil conspires to undermine the best of intentions
WHAT can match the anticipation of a frightening read? Will I need to leave the lights on after reading the book? Yes, in the case of an author such as Henry James who knew the tingling, anticipatory pleasure of a horror story well told. The drawing room through which we enter The Turn of the Screw makes the novella’s anxiety all the more potent and leaves the terrified reader longing for a safe return to its opening fireside. Daphne Du Maurier’s long short story, Don’t Look Back , offers premonitions and a brutal conclusion, and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has made a spectre of back- of- the- door dressing- gowns and fear out of every solitary sleep.
What distinguishes these narratives is their capacity to destabilise the reader, taking them into alarming personal spaces populated with ambiguity. We enter the zone of all our worst fears because we carry them deep within us and the author has merely plucked at their strings.
American novelist Hannah Tinti has at-
The Good Thief By Hannah Tinti Headline, 352pp, $ 29.99
tempted something of this fear in The Good Thief , her first novel after the acclaimed short story collection Animal Crackers . With its parentless children and appalling working conditions, The Good Thief owes more to the social horrors of Dickens’s Oliver Twist than it does to the more psychologically destabilising horror of James or du Maurier. But Tinti peppers the novel with some chilling gothic moments, the wild gallops across the countryside reminiscent of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow .
Tinti’s narrative begins in a Catholic orphanage for abandoned boys, few of whom are lucky enough to find homes; those who remain there will become cannon fodder in the army. The story’s main character, Ren, deformed by the loss of one hand, has little hope of rescue to a happy family. Then, one day, Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren’s brother.
The novel moves into the gothic more actively when Ren becomes an accomplice to Benjamin’s work as a grave robber. Joined by Benjamin’s colleague, Tom, the boy finds himself drawn into a deeper mystery. The men dig up a body that is not yet dead. They enter a town in which most of the menfolk have been killed in a mining accident. It is lyrically described: ‘‘ The cart passed an ancient chestnut tree, and Ren imagined its roots reaching underneath the ground, sifting through everything there, just like the fingers of the miners’ widows, going at the soil that held their men, with shovels and pickaxes, with others’ wives and children, and with the farmers from the hills.’’
They bunk at a boarding house run by the deaf Mrs Sands, who feeds a dwarf brother who lives
on the roof. He joins the narrative, and the kitchen where his supper awaits, via the chimney. Most alarming is the McGinty Mouse- Trap Factory that looms over the town and employs the town’s mousy young women: one with a harelip will play a key role in Ren’s story.
Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, a place famous for its murderous treatment of women deemed to be witches, and there is something both redemptive and wayward in all The Good Thief ’ s women: the shouting landlady, the harelipped girl, the miners’ widows and the prostitutes who ply their trade in a town where only bad men thrive. Dead women also are offered a form of resurrected speech. In one of the novel’s more frightening scenes, a woman buried in her bridal dress is sliced out of it, the pearl buttons falling around the newly cracked grave. Ren’s mother speaks too, from her painted miniature, of thwarted love and unbearable cruelty.
Sometimes the beauty of Tinti’s descriptions is equally matched with some prosaic writing and clumsy sentences. It’s a pity because Tinti is a writer of considerable skill. The novel’s last section is the best. It is set largely in the factory, its machinery as murderous as the town gangs. All the characters come together in an odd, picaresque jigsaw puzzle. McGinty the factory owner is a very fine character, his presence and speech decidedly creepy, but the utopian resolution of the finale feels rushed and far too neat.
Despite these slips, The Good Thief is enjoyable. Its characters hover for a long time after the book is finished, not in the terrifying way of the aforementioned authors’ but in a way that challenges our notions of good and evil. Ren’s struggle to stay good when surrounded by bad men offers one of life’s great conundrums: which way might any of us fall? Perhaps the greatest fears rest in a question such as that. Catherine Cole is professor of creative writing at RMIT University in Melbourne. Her latest book is The Poet Who Forgot.