Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel

This novel is loosely based on the true story of Charles Byrne, the real-life “Irish Giant” who exhibited himself in London in the late eighteenth century, and whose bones were coveted, and dubiously acquired, by surgeon John Hunter and are today displayed in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons alongside the diminutive skeleton of Caroline Crachami, “The Sicilian Fairy.”

The story begins in 1782 with Charles O’Brien and his band of followers quitting poverty and hunger stricken Ireland to make their fortune in London. The giant has a talent for telling Irish folk and fairy tales, songs, and poems, and this puts him a cut above the average giant working the sideshow circuit. Some of these stories are included and are one of the book’s best features. On the advice of his manager, the Giant changes his name to Charles Byrne, to sound more refined and attract a better class of custom.

Entwined with the Giant’s story is that of John Hunter, a poor Scottish farm lad whose ambition and determination pays off when he becomes London’s most renowned surgeon. He is a dedicated, obsessive man who in his quest for knowledge regularly consorts with bodysnatchers, experiments with artificial insemination, and even accidentally inflicts himself with syphilis while attempting to inject a pauper with the virus, but shrugs it off as this will allow him to chart the course of the disease better. He keeps abreast of any of nature’s oddities on display in London, hoping to dissect them and add their bones to his collection when Death calling, and when he sees Charles Byrne he becomes obsessed with adding his skeleton to his collection.

This is a rather sparse, bleak tale of the pursuit of, and fleeting nature, of fame and fortune. The Giant’s time as a star attraction doesn’t last, and neither does the money. More than once he is forced to reduce his price and change to cheaper lodgings and cater to a lower class of customers to keep in business. Friendships and loyalties fray, disillusionment sets in, though life is better than it was in Ireland the Irish are treated badly, and as his health begins to deteriorate, his band of followers, blinded by the glitter of gold, are tempted by Hunter’s offer to purchase the Giant’s remains.

For those who are interested in the history of medicine, bodysnatching, sideshows and human oddities, Irish folktales, and the not so glamorous life in 18th century London, this is certainly a worthwhile read.

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