The Giant, O'Brien A Novel

Hilary Mantel




Trade Paperback

208 Pages


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London, 1782: center of science and commerce, home to the newly rich and the desperately poor. Among them is the Giant, O'Brien, a freak of nature, a man of song and story who trusts in the old myths. He has come from Ireland to exhibit his size for money. He has, he soon finds, come to die. His opposite is a man of science, the famed anatomist John Hunter. Hunter lusts after the Giant's corpse, a medical curiosity, a boon to the advancement of scientific knowledge. In her acclaimed novel, Hilary Mantel tells of the fated convergence of two worlds: Ireland and England, poetry and science. As belief wrestles knowledge, so the novel calls from a fork in the road. It is a tale of its time, a timeless tale.


Praise for The Giant, O'Brien

"Hilary Mantel has felt herself into the poetics of history with singular intensity. A brilliant pastiche, drawing on Swift and Joyce, deploying all the tricks of understatement and of what the great Russian formalist Shklovsky called 'making it strange,' it triumphantly justifies and reanimates these well-worn methods."—John Bayley, The New York Review of Books
"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, Lacey, Washington, Library Journal
"The title character in Mantel's grimly lyrical latest novel 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 uses characters to probe at larger truths—here, 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-century's 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, he's 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."—Kirkus Reviews
"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, 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 emigre 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 naivete 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."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

THE GIANT, O'BRIEN“Bring in the cows now. Time to shut up for the night.”There came three cows, breathing in the near-dark: swishing with the tips of their tails, their bones showing through hide. They set down their hooves among the men, jostling. Flames from the fire danced in their eyes. Through the open door, the moon sailed against the mountain.“Or O’Shea will have them away over the hill,” Connor said. Connor was their host. “Three cows my grandfather had of his grandfather. Never a night goes by that he doesn’t look to get the debt paid.”“An
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  • Hilary Mantel

  • Hilary Mantel's novels include the Orange Prize-shortlisted Beyond Black and A Place of Greater Safety. She lives in England.
  • Hilary Mantel John Haynes
    Hilary Mantel