Rating: 3 stars
The Giant, O’Brien is Hilary Mantel’s reimagining of the story of Charles Byrne, an 8-foot tall Irishman who travels to London to seek fame and fortune but ends up becoming the quarry of John Hunter, the doctor whose collection of medical curiosities, accumulated under the aegis of promoting the development of scientific knowledge, form the basis of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
As well as being Mantel’s retelling of Byrne’s story, the book contains Byrne’s retelling of a variety of stories from his time, and an oddly violent version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Mantel has a wonderful imagination and I always appreciate the way she plays with words, so I enjoyed these story telling segments.
Does it say something bad about me, though, that I enjoyed John Hunter’s story more than that of Charles Byrne, because he was deliciously horrid and macabre? I liked the travelling band of whimsical Irishmen, but found their cartoonish simplicity too much to take at times. I got the feeling, from the amount of lyrical waxing going on, that Byrne’s experiences were Mantel’s favourite part of the story. She seemed to lose herself in the romance of a giant coming to England from Ireland and the sadness in his condition and eventual betrayal. I found her funnier and more biting, however, when she was getting across how obsessed with illness and disease Hunter was, and how focused on understanding the human body. There are some very funny lines about how brutal the medical sciences were in the 18th century.
… in summer [he] attended upon Chelsden as he committed surgery against patients at Chelsea Hospital …
… by now he was possessed by a great interest in gunshot wounds, an interest he found hard to indulge, so near to Hyde Park. It was a defect, in Londoners, that they did not shoot each other enough.
Mantel’s tale reminds us, as well, that the acquisition of bodies on which to experiment was, in the 18th century, a nefarious affair. Hunter pays a ragbag of people to rob graves, pretend to be relatives at hospitals and morgues, and even to offer up their own bodies for live experimentation in his study of disease. He is dedicated to the pursuit of medical knowledge.
Byrne didn’t grab my imagination in the same way, although his story is also well written. Somehow, for all the character Mantel tries to imbue him with, he didn’t have enough character for me to care about him. He seemed sentimentally drawn, and his band of followers lacked depth as well.