Cover: Anna Morrison
‘New York waited outside the window, stretching up to the sky like the calligraphy of a particularly flamboyant god.’ (p 8)
A sizzling start
Philip Pullman is quoted as saying, ‘(Katherine) Rundell is now inarguably in the first rank.’ I would not even think of arguing.
A book that on page one includes the deliciously quotable quote, ‘It is not always sensible to be sensible,’ grabs attention immediately. Then you don’t need to read many pages of this, her new novel, to realise that you are in the hands of a very fine writer - and promised an absolute treat of a read.
Vita, the young protagonist of The Good Thieves, is a dead shot with hand-thrown missiles; pebble or penknife, she can hit any target with astonishing accuracy. Katherine Rundell hurls amazingly fresh language at the page with the same deadly accuracy, and so hits the thoughts behind her words with telling vividness. There is true wit in this writing and a modest but sharp intelligence, as well as a joyful play with the potential of our language. Yet nothing is either portentous or pretentious. It makes her book spark with thrilling electricity page after page.
‘Is selfastonishment a word? Because if not, I need it to be one now.’ (p 187)
New York, New York
However, that is not all that makes this novel so captivating. It does not take the author long to propel her characters, and with them her readers, into one of the most exciting and compelling storylines I have encountered for quite some time. This is like the greatest heist movies novelised for children.
Part of the engagement comes from a superbly evoked setting of early twentieth-century New York. Here are the newly-built skyscrapers and the gridlines of bustling avenues, Grand Central Station and The Public Library, street vendors and gangsters, prohibition and rampant capitalism, hotels for tycoons and the slums of the Bowery. It is all viscerally exciting and so vividly conjured as to enable the reader to experience the presence of the city in every episode. This feeling is also greatly enhanced by Matt Saunders’ wonderful chapter head drawings, themselves brilliantly evocative of both place and period. Amongst many gems, I particularly thrilled at his image of Central Park, which magically conveys a sense of space and calm amidst the turmoil of the never-sleeping metropolis.
Characters to die for, and live for
Yet even more than its setting, it is this story’s young characters who bring it leaping off the page and into the minds and hearts of it readers. What a varied, original and engaging bunch they are: Silk, an orphaned pickpocket; Arkady, an ‘animal-whisperer’ from an indoor circus (temporarily housed in Carnegie Hall, no less); Samuel, a black boy with aspirations to ‘fly’ a trapeze (or indeed anything from which he can swing); and Vita, an an English girl with a club foot, newly arrived in New York. She should by rights feel lost, but far from it, for she arrives with a clear mission burning through every ounce of her being. Remarkably too, in a story about thievery that could carry a questionable morality, these young protagonists each bring a rectitude that not only balances the story firmly in favour of goodness but also resonates strongly with important issues of our own times. Silk, hates the way poverty has forced her into dishonesty and desperately wants escape from her present life; Arcady despises the way his circus humiliates and tortures wonderful wild creatures, and seeks rather enlightened appreciation of the wonders of the animal world; Samuel bravely strives to fulfil his ambition despite being continually told that such paths are closed to those with his colour of skin; and, most of all, Vita is driven by deep love to do whatever is needed to right the terrible wrongs perpetrated on her grieving grandfather.
‘Love has a way of leaving people no choice.’ (p 8)
And even then, she makes choices that will not seriously hurt even those she hates:
‘To throw the knife would be death. . . She wanted nothing to do with death - nothing to do with finality, with endings, with the dark of it. She hated the man more than she hated any living thing, but he was living.’ (p 275)
Vita’s is a story for all who want to change the world for the better, whoever they are. It shouts loudly and clearly that those who may seem to have been given a raw deal in life, can actually achieve wonderful things.
More than . . .
This is the sort of book that I know I would myself have enjoyed as a child, an all-absorbing, edge of the seat adventure, with a wonderful warm, resolution to make me feel that there was at least a part of life where everything was ‘all right’. It is just the sort of book that helped me survive the cross-country run that I loathed, the maths homework that I got all wrong, the ‘big boys’ who threw my school cap into the bushes. And that is no small thing.
But no book that I read back then (probably a Malcolm Saville or a Geoffrey Trease) was anywhere near so well written as this, so rich in language and thought. And that is a big thing too.
Katherine Rundell’s story is full of warmth and wisdom:
‘Learn as much as you can, for learning is the very opposite of death.’ (p 16)
It embodies a deep respect for life and a passionate belief in the potential of (young) human beings:
It is a book to inspire as well as to entertain royally. Today’s readers are incredibly fortunate to have such a writer.