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Hilary Mantel: The Giant, O’Brien

Set in the past (specifically the late eighteenth century), focusing on the poorer strata of society and dealing with people who are often outcasts of society, this novel has some of Mantel’s familiar themes. Its two main characters are both real people, though Mantel, as she tells us herself in the introduction, has embellished their stories and taken some latitude with what is known historically. The two characters are the eponymous Giant O’Brien, whose name was changed to Charles Byrne and whose bones are now in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons, and John Hunter, a surgeon. We know that they will come together at the end, as Hunter bought O’Brien/Byrne’s bones.

But the main focus, as the title implies, is on Charles O’Brien. He comes over to London from Ireland, with only limited English. He has been brought over by an agent, John Vance, and is accompanied by his various associates, Pybus, Claffey and Jankin. Vance changes O’Brien’s name to Byrne and, once in London, proceeds to sell him to the London public. But O’Brien, while willing to go along to a certain degree, not least because he wishes to save up his money to take home and rebuild the local pub, is only willing to be on display and not too willing to use his strength for manual labour. He is also a great story-teller and much of the book consists of his tales of a magical Ireland. Indeed, Mantel makes much of the comparison between the Irish and the English, the Irish being looked down on by the English but the English being considered more dishonest. But problems eventually arise. The demand for giants seems to be on the wane, as the public searches for the latest thrill, be it pinheads or clever pigs. Byrne seems to be still growing and this seems to cause him all sorts of physical problems. Finally, there is the possibility of a competitor, Patrick O’Brien (no relation) who is, apparently, taller than Byrne and is on his way to England.

At the same time as we follow Byrne, Vance and their associates, including the Bitch Mary, who initially provides housekeeping and later sexual services, we are also following the story of John Hunter. Hunter has come down from Scotland to assist his brother, Willie, also a surgeon. But he soon becomes more adept than Willie, carrying out various experiments on both corpses and on living people (for a fee), which, as we know, will lead to improvements in surgical techniques in such areas as gunshot wounds and venereal diseases. Hunter spends much of his time trying to obtain corpses for his experiments (something which was illegal at the time) as well as persuading poor people to participate in his experiments, e.g. having syphilis injected into their penises (for a fee), though, of course, they were not aware of what was being injected into them. But all the time we know that he covets the body of Byrne, as he covets the body of any odd people (including the pinheads).

While Mantel certainly tells her story well, I did not find this novel as interesting as some of her others, not least because it is relatively short and the secondary characters tended to be less interesting. Even Byrne, a decent man, worried about his growth, about his rebuilding of the pub and his rival, is perhaps less well-drawn than some of the complex characters we will meet in her other novels. Nevertheless, a less than perfect Mantel novel is still worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Fourth Estate