The giant, O'Brien : a novel /

A sick Irish giant in 18th century London is offered money by an anatomist if he will bequeath his body. The giant refuses, he wants to enter heaven whole, but the anatomist gets the body anyway. A parable on man of myth versus man of science. By the author of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.

Main Author: Mantel, Hilary, 1952-
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : Picador/Henry Holt Company, 2007.
Edition: 1st Picador ed.
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Review by Booklist Review

In 1782, Charles O'Brien, an extraordinarily large Irishman with limited prospects and a knack for poetry and storytelling, travels to London to make his fortune by billing himself as the Giant and exhibiting himself. At once charmed and repelled by the unusual combination of O'Brien's silvery tongue and freakish size, the British public initially flocks to see him, and he prospers accordingly; however, as his novelty wears off, the Giant is forsaken by fans seeking more astonishing curiosities. As the Giant's income shrinks and his health begins to fail, he crosses paths with John Hunter, a brilliantly innovative physician obsessed with anatomical dissection and experimentation. Realizing that the Giant's condition is fatal, Hunter is determined to use any means necessary to possess the remains of the Giant after he dies. Based loosely on a true story, Mantel's provocative narrative artfully pits two fascinating protagonists against each other in the timeless struggle between art and science. Penetrating historical fiction for discriminating readers. --Margaret Flanagan

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The most engaging moments in Mantel's intriguing new novel occur when the uneducated Irish characters who make up the loutish retinue of "the Giant, O'Brien" converse. Perfectly imagining the vocabulary and inflections of Irish peasants whose stark ignorance leaves them agape at the wonders of 1782 London, Mantel produces dialogue that is at once credible and funny. Here, as in many of her novels (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street; An Experiment in Love), cultures collide, and individual human beings suffer as a consequence. Taking as her inspiration the 18th-century Irish giant Charles Byrnes, whose bones are still on exhibit in a London museum, Mantel has imagined the fate of the man, who leaves the dire poverty and scorched earth of the Irish countryside and comes to London entertaining grandiose fantasies of riches and respect, but who encounters disillusionment and his own mortality instead. In counterpoint to the giant, who lives in Ireland's glorious past, spinning folktales and fables to earn his bread, another émigré to London, Scottish surgeon James Hunter (also a real figure), is obsessed with the "modern" lure of scientific research, for which he needs bodies. Generally dependent on grave robbers for his corpses, Hunter realizes that the giant is moribund, and plots to win the cadaver. Mantel makes the most of the contrast between the steel-willed, splenetic Hunter and the gentle giant, a hedgerow scholar whose generous nature and naïveté are his undoing. Her picture of late-18th-century London is brilliant‘especially the gloom, filth and squalor in which the lower class exists, ruled by prejudice, superstition and strong drink. She also hits home with witty comments about the national characteristics of the English and the Irish. While the narrative fascinates with atmospheric detail, however, this novel lacks the artfully maintained suspense of Mantel's previous work. It is the rich background that sustains interest rather than the giant and his nemesis, both of whom remain shadowy figures. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Mantel's new novel is a bizarre and morbid account of the meeting of art and science. In 1782, Irish giant Charles O'Brien arrives in London with an agent, an entourage, and a willingness to exploit himself for financial gain. He is a learned man, knowledgeable in myths and stories, yet it is his size that attracts the interest of John Hunter, surgeon, scientist, and collector of biological and medical oddities. Hunter is determined to add the Giant to his collection and bides his time until the Giant's declining health and financial ruin signal the end of his life. Hunter's calculated efforts to acquire O'Brien and the willingness of the Giant's associates to barter for his bones are chilling depictions of greed and selfishness. Mantel tells a classic tale, rich with the sights, sounds, and smells of 18th-century London.‘Dianna Moeller, WLN, Lacey, WA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The title character in Mantel's grimly lyrical latest novel (after Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, 1997, etc.) is in flight from a number of horrors. He arrives in London in 1782, having fled the famine and violence that is devastating his native Ireland. He is fleeing as well his despairing conviction that the past of the Irish people, represented by a vast reservoir of myths and historical narratives, is vanishing as those charged with remembering that glorious past die off. O'Brien, by the standards of his day a giant, has allowed himself to be convinced by a none-too-bright promoter that he can make a fortune by allowing himself to be exhibited in London (``like the sea and gallows. It refuses none''). Swiftly, he finds one more fury to flee, this time in the person of John Hunter, a premier anatomist who uses grave robbers to supply his seemingly insatiable need for corpses to dissect. Hunter, having heard of O'Brien, becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing the giant's bones for his museum of anatomical oddities. Once again, Mantel (An Experiment in Love, 1996, etc.) uses characters to probe at larger truthsŽhere, O'Brien, who is a great taleteller, a repository of Ireland's imaginative past, seems to represent a belief in the redemptive power of art and wonder, besieged by the 18th-centuryŽs ferocious scientific rationalism: Hunter wants desperately to understand what life is, but can only pursue it by destroying it. O'Brien enjoys a floating fame, falls on hard times, and ends up in a squalid freak show. Sickening, heŽs aware that his nemesis Hunter is feverishly attempting to buy the rights to his corpse from the show's owner. Dying, he dreams of his life as it might have been, if he had been a poet. As it is, it seems certain that ``stories could not. save him.'' Distinguished by a deft use of voices (from O'Brien's soaring lyricism and earthy humor to Hunter's desiccated musings) and by a vivid portrait of the feculent underside of London: a fresh, moving meditation on the sources of wonder and the dangers of a depraved rationalism.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.