Having finished Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy last year, I knew I wanted to read more of her books. A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution, has always sounded appealing to me but the length is off-putting, so I decided to try a shorter one first.
The Giant, O’Brien, published in 1998, is based on the true story of the 18th century Irish giant, Charles Byrne. Also known as Charles O’Brien and claiming descent from the High Kings, but usually referred to by Mantel as simply ‘the Giant’, Byrne and his friends leave Ireland in 1782, fleeing ‘cyclical deprivation, linguistic oppression and cultural decline.’ The Giant has previously been able to make a living by entertaining his neighbours with stories and songs but, sensing that things are changing, he knows he needs to find a new way to earn money. The solution seems obvious, so after arriving in London with his entourage, the Giant appoints the unscrupulous Joe Vance as his agent and agrees to exhibit himself as a freak, to be stared at, pointed at, poked and prodded, in return for money.
The story of another man unfolds in parallel with the Giant’s. His name is John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon and anatomist – like Charles Byrne, a real historical figure. Mantel describes Hunter’s early years in Long Calderwood and how he came to be in London, first as an assistant to his brother William, another famous anatomist, and then on his own, conducting autopsies in the name of scientific research. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, it was very difficult to obtain bodies for medical study in the UK, a problem which led to body snatching and the illegal digging up of graves. In one fascinating, if slightly gruesome scene, Hunter lectures a group of newly recruited body snatchers on the best ways to get hold of fresh corpses without being detected. Naturally, the bodies of most interest to Hunter are those that are unusual in some way – so when he hears news of the Giant currently being exhibited in London, he decides to make him an offer, despite the fact that the Giant is not yet dead.
Mantel portrays the Giant as a gentle, intelligent man with a natural gift for telling stories and a seemingly endless knowledge of myth, folklore and fairy tales. This, as much as his height, makes him stand out from his friends. While the others succumb to London’s temptations – alcohol, women and gambling – the Giant saves his money in the hope of one day rebuilding Mulroney’s tavern, now a ruin but once the place where ‘Courts of Poetry’ were held and he was taught the art of storytelling. John Hunter, in contrast, is much less likeable; if the Giant represents tradition and a way of life that is about to be lost forever, Hunter represents progress and advancement and is portrayed as clever, ambitious and lacking in empathy.
In her author’s note at the end of the book, Mantel explains which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. There’s more factual information available on John Hunter than there is on the life of Charles Byrne, but what we do know about Byrne is that he suffered from gigantism caused by pituitary tumours, his height was 7ft 7 (2.31m) and his skeleton has been on display in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons for over two centuries, despite his own wishes to be buried at sea. The museum has been closed since 2017 for renovations and the future of Charles Byrne’s remains is the subject of an ethical debate.
I found both the Giant and John Hunter interesting to read about, particularly as I previously knew nothing at all about either of them, but I thought the book seemed slightly disjointed because of the way it kept switching between the two narratives. Until they began to converge very near the end, the two storylines felt completely separate and unconnected; I suppose Mantel’s aim was to show the contrast between the main characters and the different paths they followed through life, but I felt it didn’t flow very well as a novel. I also didn’t find the eighteenth century London setting as immersive as the Tudor world she creates in the Wolf Hall books. Still, there are some fascinating ideas in this novel and the Giant O’Brien himself is a character I won’t forget in a hurry!
This is book 1/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.