Please visit our new site!


Bare bones

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel

Richard Marshall 17 August 2011

Towering: caricature of O'Brien by J. Kay (1784)

Mantel's Hunter resembles Dr Faustus – a diabolical pact with science leads him deeper into obsession and isolation

Editor's note: aims to review all published works of ‘lab lit’ fiction regardless of age. The Giant, O'Brien was first published by Bantam Books in 1998 and is still available in paperback from Fourth Estate. If you want to review a classic for us, please get in touch.

Long before her Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall landed in the public consciousness, Hilary Mantel was exploring apparently innocuous themes with her trademark darkly humorous insights into the human psyche. The Giant O'Brien is a fictionalised account of two historical lives: the celebrated Irish giant, Charles Byrne, who travelled to England in 1782, and the famed Scottish surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter.

Leaving his native land of poverty and poetry with a rag-tag entourage, O'Brien engages fast-talking Joe Vance as his agent and journeys to London to seek his fortune by showing himself as a Curiosity. Hunter, meanwhile, engages the services of grave-robbers and other nefarious dealers to provide him with corpses for his anatomy classes and bones for his collection – yet the bones he covets most of all are those of one (still very much alive) Charles O'Brien, the Irish Giant.

Interlacing two converging narratives, Mantel contrasts the Giant's obscure origins with stark details of Hunter's childhood and grim education as the two men's destinies draw ever closer. As an author, she is not afraid to approach familiar topics from unexpected angles. Here, O'Brien, the storytelling giant, appears sane and reasonable for all his self-mythologising whilst Hunter, driven by dark memories of death and isolation, is haunted by macabre dreams.

Though the tale is deceptively slight, the author is a master at leavening a subtly gothic narrative with some surprising humour. Mantel uses historical facts and familiar themes like elements in a surrealist painting, serving to disorientate the reader as much as anchor us in a known world. She generates dissonance and foreboding with a subtlety that writers like Poe might well have envied.

Ireland is a land ripped by poverty and famine, caught between the old beliefs and the scourging reality of hunger and death, abandoned even by the mythical "gentlefolk" who populate the Giant's stories and captivate his listeners, while their woodland homes are cut down for firewood. Eighteenth-century England fares no better for all its modernity and rationalism; London becomes the place where all souls descend to their basest modes of existence.

In The Giant O’Brien, Mantel spares nobody – for nobody is innocent in this tragic tale of a death foretold, excepting Charles O’Brien himself, whose very innocence is his undoing. As the peasant woman in Ireland says in a telling moment, “Ah you poor man... I never thought I should say that to a Giant”.

Mantel's Hunter, on the other hand, resembles Dr Faustus – a diabolical pact with science leads him deeper into obsession and isolation. Whilst he argues the case for the Scientific Method, his own acts seem suspiciously unscientific, becoming ever more those of a superstitious Gentleman Dilettante and less those of a scientist in the Age of Reason.

Indeed, it is superstition that has always protected and provided for Charles O’Brien, yet in the cesspit of 18th-century London, the call of money is louder than the call of the old ways and, as his companions lose their sheen of innocence, it becomes his ultimate undoing. The abandonment of Mulroney’s Tavern, where traditional poetry was passed down the generations, symbolises the passing of the old ways – and though the Giant mourns its loss, Mantel doesn’t demand that we do.

Ultimately the moral seems to be that progress is inevitable, old ways will be left behind and people must suffer in the name of such progress. Moreover, greed and violence are common to both the rich and the poor throughout the ages – as are innocence and compassion. Hardly an uplifting conclusion – nonetheless, the novel is a surprisingly enjoyable and satisfying read.

Captivating and disturbing in equal measure, The Giant, O'Brien may not be hardcore ‘Lab Lit’, yet it certainly delivers as quality literature with a scientific theme. Whilst I would have liked the author to have engaged a little more with the scientific themes that John Hunter is meant to represent, this remains a book that I can heartily recommend.