Evil con­spires to un­der­mine the best of in­ten­tions

Cather­ine Cole

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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