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The Giant, O'Brien

New or Used: 2 copies from $8.95
New or Used: 2 copies from $8.95

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About the Author

Born of Irish Catholic parents in Derbyshire. Worked for 10 years as a social worker assistant in a geriatric hospital, which inspired her first novel, Every Day is Mother's Day (1985). Her other novels are Vacant Possession (1986), Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988, and soon to be a major film), Fludd (1989), A Place of Greater Safety (1992), which won the Saturday Express Book of the Year Award, A Change of Climate (1994) and An Experiment in Love (1995).


The most engaging moments in Mantel's intriguing new novel occur when the uneducated Irish characters who make up the loutish retinue of "the Giant, O'Brien" converse. Perfectly imagining the vocabulary and inflections of Irish peasants whose stark ignorance leaves them agape at the wonders of 1782 London, Mantel produces dialogue that is at once credible and funny. Here, as in many of her novels (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street; An Experiment in Love), cultures collide, and individual human beings suffer as a consequence. Taking as her inspiration the 18th-century Irish giant Charles Byrnes, whose bones are still on exhibit in a London museum, Mantel has imagined the fate of the man, who leaves the dire poverty and scorched earth of the Irish countryside and comes to London entertaining grandiose fantasies of riches and respect, but who encounters disillusionment and his own mortality instead. In counterpoint to the giant, who lives in Ireland's glorious past, spinning folktales and fables to earn his bread, another émigré to London, Scottish surgeon James Hunter (also a real figure), is obsessed with the "modern" lure of scientific research, for which he needs bodies. Generally dependent on grave robbers for his corpses, Hunter realizes that the giant is moribund, and plots to win the cadaver. Mantel makes the most of the contrast between the steel-willed, splenetic Hunter and the gentle giant, a hedgerow scholar whose generous nature and naïveté are his undoing. Her picture of late-18th-century London is brilliant‘especially the gloom, filth and squalor in which the lower class exists, ruled by prejudice, superstition and strong drink. She also hits home with witty comments about the national characteristics of the English and the Irish. While the narrative fascinates with atmospheric detail, however, this novel lacks the artfully maintained suspense of Mantel's previous work. It is the rich background that sustains interest rather than the giant and his nemesis, both of whom remain shadowy figures. (Oct.)

`[A] novel that magically creates an illusion of the Age of Enlightenment. Hilary Mantel puts the stink of the eighteenth century into our nostrils.' Independent

`A novelist of remarkable diversity...She writes about curiosity, companionship, art, love, death and eternity. She writes with wit, compassion and great elegance. Her books never fail to surprise, nor to delight: in this one she is at her very best - so far.' Independent on Sunday

`Mantel can out-write most writers of her generation, male and female. What she has done here is disturbing, grievous and extraordinary.' Maggie Gee, Sunday Times

'Filled with bizarre happenings, brazen images and characters whose earthiness you can smell.' TES

'Hilary Mantel has felt herself into the poetics of history with singular intensity.' New York Review

'Pathos and humour as they are elsewhere in the book are blended to perfection.' Sunday Telegraph

'Simultaneously vigorous and poetic, full of satisfying earthy details.' Sunday Independent (Ireland)

Mantel's new novel is a bizarre and morbid account of the meeting of art and science. In 1782, Irish giant Charles O'Brien arrives in London with an agent, an entourage, and a willingness to exploit himself for financial gain. He is a learned man, knowledgeable in myths and stories, yet it is his size that attracts the interest of John Hunter, surgeon, scientist, and collector of biological and medical oddities. Hunter is determined to add the Giant to his collection and bides his time until the Giant's declining health and financial ruin signal the end of his life. Hunter's calculated efforts to acquire O'Brien and the willingness of the Giant's associates to barter for his bones are chilling depictions of greed and selfishness. Mantel tells a classic tale, rich with the sights, sounds, and smells of 18th-century London.‘Dianna Moeller, WLN, Lacey, WA

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