Hilary Mantel, whose novel Wolf Hall enjoyed critical praise is also the author of a novel called The Giant, O'Brien. Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783), also known as Charles O'Brien or "The Irish Giant", was a human curiosity. Byrne's corpse was bought by John Hunter and his 7 ft 7 in skeleton now belongs to the Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Museum in London.
Like Andrew Miller and Penelope Fitzgerald, Hilary Mantel turns to the 18th century in order to make a universal point. Her eighth novel, The Giant, O'Brien, takes place during that bifurcation of mind and spirit commonly known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment. The year is 1782 and Charles O'Brien has fled Ireland, bringing both his massive frame and his ancient folk tales to England, where he hopes to make his fortune as a sideshow exhibit.
"His appetite was great, as befitted him; he could eat a granary, he could drink a barrel. But now that all Ireland is coming down to ruin together, how will giants thrive? 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 ... many hearths had welcomed him as a prodigy, a conversationalist, an illustration from nature's book. Nature's book is little read now, and he thought this: I had better make a living in the obvious way. I will make a living from being tall."Unfortunately, O'Brien's height attracts more attention than he might wish for: John Hunter, a surgeon, becomes fascinated with the giant and obsessed with the possibility of dissecting him after he's dead. Thus Mantel sets up the central conflict of her novel: Hunter's thirst for knowledge and fame versus O'Brien's conviction that, without his body, his soul cannot go to heaven. In the mean streets of 18th-century London, the author explores the division of soul and body, imagination and rationalism, as she juxtaposes the two men's lives. In this collision of cultures and paradigms, she offers no easy answers, but instead turns a disturbing spotlight on questions that continue to resonate to the present day. --Alix Wilber
Reviews'[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)