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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
The Giant, O'Brien
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on 8 April 2012
At times a very dark and disturbing story. The characters in The Giant, O'Brien (apart from the Giant himself) exhibit a lot of the worst of human traits - opportunistic, cruel, desperate and treacherous. The depiction of 18th century London where life is cheap and the exploitation of "freaks" by unscrupulous characters is depressing. There are few redeeming features in the people we meet in this book. London is certainly a more enlightened place today. The Irish are, by and large, depicted as vicious, drunken and untrustworthy, although some context / explanation is provided for this by the descriptions of the abject poverty which the Giant and his band left behind in Ireland.

Nevertheless there is something engaging about this novel. There is a mysticism and lyricism to the stories and speech of the gentle Giant. The escapades of his little troop and they depart Ireland are at times comical and there is some humour throughout the book.

The sections on John Hunter are very well written but seem too separate and the two strands are never fully brought together.

Overall impressive in many ways but seems unfinished.
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on 7 December 2015
Wonderful book--written with Hilary Mantel's usual skill-a fascinating piece of history-well worth a read!
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on 1 September 2017
Found the book difficult. Not as good as I had expected from reviews I had read. Hard to get into although I did complete the book. Overall disappointed.
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on 27 September 2013
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on 20 December 2001
Dark, gothic and still somehow realistic, this is a robust, occasionally funny and very moving book, a real work of the imagination; intensely aware of what it is to be human with all the cruelty, horror and beauty that that implies. It tells the story of a poverty-stricken Irish giant who travels to London with his band of followers to exhibit himself as a freak, and of a scientist called John Hunter, who'll go to any lengths to further his study of the human body. Both of these 18th century characters actually existed, although the book is a work of fiction
This remains my favourite novel of all time (so far) for the sprightly clear-eyed way it draws you convincingly into another century - right into a sordid, packed London where the relationships between the characters (the Giant, his motley unreliable gang and his London promoter, plus Hunter and his posse of body snatchers) are played out. What happens to these people really does matter to you, even though the world of 18th century giants and obsessive scientists isn't exactly familiar. You could go on about this book's themes for hours, but the main thing is that it has compelling central characters and an overall sense of adventure and wisdom that keeps you reading and plays with your emotions at the same time.
I've never bothered to write a review on Amazon, but was so shocked to see that Giant O'Brien didn't have one that for once I made the effort. I hate to think that there are people out there who love books who haven't read this one
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 May 2017
This novel was offered as a freebie alongside the author’s Bring up the Bodies and the first point to make is Mantell’s breadth of style, character and voice. There are many reasons to settle down and enjoy this fascinating narrative. The story itself is engaging – loosely based on the real-life 18th-century Kerry giant Charles Byrne who, as Mantel says in her concluding Note, had a very different life to the one described here.

The eponymous Charles O’Brien is well read and compassionate, and immensely sympathetic – especially as he continues to grow in height and decline physically and mentally under the influence of a pituitary disorder. Forced out by the clearances, a group of Irish followers lead by the naïve entrepreneur Joe Vance, concoct a scheme to take him to Britain to capitalise on the interest in sensational ‘freaks’ of nature. Until now ‘He had made a living by going about and being a pleasant visitor who fetched not just the gift of his giant presence but also stories and songs’ but with the ruin of Ireland he has decided to ‘make a living in the obvious way. I will make a living from being tall.’

Interweaved with this story is that of the Scottish surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter, who used a network of ‘resurrection men’ to secure laboratory subjects. Having worked through a range of corpses and created a collection that puts him on the verge of bankruptcy, Hunter becomes determined to add O’Brien to his specimens.

The two stories are differentiated by Mantell’s language – the bravura descriptions of Harvey’s background and life, his obsession with his dissections, his lack of funds and his relationship with his brother, a much better known doctor, are enlivened by the language of the time – ‘rumblethump’ and ‘blowthum’ being just two examples. O’Brien’s rise and fall personally and economically [up to half a crown a gawp and back down to a penny] shows the ways in which all sections of the public can be manipulated for profit whilst the proposals for his marketing are very familiar from today.

Much is made of the poverty and filth of the London of the late 18th-century where people are ‘dying of dropsy, quinsy, tisick, measles, croup, gout, canker, teething, overlaying, mold-shot head, thrush, cough, whooping-cough, dueling, surfeit, pleurisy, dysentery, lethargy, child-bed, kings-evil and unknown causes’ and foraging pigs ‘glare…a metropolitan ill-will shining red and plain in their tiny eyes’. This is contrasted with the magical stories that the giant tells his friends based upon the Irish folklore that he is committed to preserving and promoting.

Hunter’s investigations, blending experimentation and observation, is contrasted with the naivety of giant’s followers. He seeks to understand ‘if there is a soul and if the soul can split from the body and if so what is the mechanism for getting out?’.

Each of the characters is beautifully drawn and by the end of the novel when both storylines come together, the reader is fully engaged and has a strong emotional association with them. The research that has gone into this comparatively short book is extensive but is so engagingly presented that it does not weigh down the reader.

Particular mention must be made to the author’s humour – much of it very black – that accompanies the story from famine- and debt-ridden rural Ireland, through England and Scotland. There are good tips on how to go about grave-robbing [chapter 5].

O'Brien is a freakish curiosity whilst Hunter's curiosity is all-consuming. Because of the latter’s manic behavior and the former’s slow physical and mental decline, there is the possibility that the anatomist will dominate the book but Mantel’s lyrical prose just about avoids this.

By the end of the story, O’Brien’s bones hang in permanent display, and can still be seen [see the author’s Note] but Hunter's portrait is already fading toward extinction.

This is a picaresque gallimaufry of a book and is greatly recommended.
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on 30 June 2013
Or is it a poem in prose? It is in any case to me a very special novel, and one I am not likely to forget. I am one of the probably very many who discovered Hilary Mantel's other novels after having read Wolf Hall and/or Bring Up the Bodies, and 'The Giant, O'Brien' is both very similar to those two and yet all together completely different as well.

As in 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies', the way in which Mantel evokes a sense of place and time is quite amazing. 'The Giant, O'Brien' starts in Ireland but for the most part is set in London at the end of the 18th century, and she recreates both excellently, often with unexpected but telling details (as when the companions of O'Brien accompanying him to London discover there is such a thing as beds, and find it hard to get used to them having slept on the ground all of their lives until then). Also, as in 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies', the story told here is based on real events, and explores familiar themes such as friendship vs. egotism/greed (to what extent can one trust one's friends?). Not a lot it seems, and in a way one can say that 'The Giant, O'Brien' is a horrid illustration of the veracity of Plautus' saying that 'Man is wolf to man' and as such a deeply disturbing tale.

At the same time, there is sheer beauty as well in the compass of these (barely) 200 pages, not least in the stories O'Brien tells. Physically he may be a giant, but at heart he is a storyteller, and the stories he tells are small gems in themselves. Indeed, 'The Giant, O'Brien' is written in often very lyrical prose, and there is not a page where you'll not come across some or other sentence that describes a familiar something in a surprising new way, or a deeply felt insight in the simplest of words. Just one of many examples: when asked by John Hunter if his memory fails, O'Brien replies 'Everything fails, sir. Reason, and harvests, and the human heart.'

It appears from the postscript that the bones of the real Charles Byrne may be seen at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields. I am not sure that, if ever I visit, I will be able to look upon those bones and not shed a tear.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 22 February 2015
1782. Just arrived in London from squalor in Ireland are Charlie O'Brien and his garrulous entourage. The hope is his great height will attract crowds and make them rich. Meanwhile anatomist John Hunter seeks unusual specimens, experiments vital to expand man's knowledge....

This short tale bursts at the seams with language most exuberant, sentences crammed with often startling imagery. Throughout emerges an evocative, disturbing recreation of the times, full of people keen to exploit or fated to be exploited. Fortunately there is much humour to enhance, especially when Charlie's companions are around.

Two historical figures inspired Hilary Mantel's rich, powerful imagination. Her O'Brien emerges most appealingly as a gentle giant, fountain of stories that hold audiences enthralled. John Hunter has feet more firmly on the ground. ("Fetch me some paupers. I want to make them vomit.") Both in different ways long for immortality - Charlie in heaven, Hunter in the annals of medical achievements. Will hopes be crushed once reality intervenes?

Grabbed and buffeted are we in this challenging read.
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on 13 July 2012
I loved and hated this book. The early part set in Ireland, with the giant telling his stories to relieve the poverty and hardship was beautifully done. The giant and his companions set out like a band of brothers to find fame and fortune, and I found the disintegration of the band who I had come to feel affection for cruel, only the giant kept his integrity. Some of the violence was casual and I feel unnecessary, especially the rape and murder of Bride.
The sections on Hunter were interesting and got to his motivations and strange personality. So ups and downs. I was not expecting a happy ending but it was too dark for me.
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on 15 December 2011
I've been a Hilary Mantel fan ever since Every Day is Mother's Day. I love her style, her way with words, her ability to take the reader inside the minds of her characters. Every book she writes is different, a quality she shares with Julian Barnes, and I would rate these two as the two best English writers writing today. A great book.
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