Customer Review

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Readers crave bodies", April 27, 2012
This review is from: The Giant, O'Brien: A Novel (Paperback)
I have read several other books by Mantel, and enjoyed them all. But this one stands out, not just as an enjoyable read, but as an excellent piece of literature. Mantel is a reliably good author - engaging, smooth, and honest. But sometimes, an author manages to rise above "good," and create something truly unique, something that breaks the rules, takes risks and succeeds in charting new territory. This is what Mantel has done in The Giant O'Brien.

The Giant O'Brien is based on the true story of the Irish giant, Charles Byrne, who was exhibited in London in 1782. In all likelihood, Byrne had acromegaly, a pituitary disorder that causes abormal growth. (Andre the Giant, from the Princess Bride, suffered from this disorder, as did Lincoln.) Interwoven into Byrne's tale is the story of John Hunter, the famous Scottish anatomist. During that time, anatomists had to rely on the pickings of the gallows, or on body snatchers, the so-called "resurrection men," for their subjects. Hunter, in his dedication to collecting and analyzing new specimens, becomes obsessed with the Giant, and their paths cross - with heart-rending predictability.

What marks this novel as exceptional is its blend of highly contrasting narrative styles. The fanciful and utterly charming tales of the Giant, which, in keeping with the events of the novel, grow darker as the story unfolds, contrast starkly with the poverty, filth and bleakness of London in the late 18th century. Mantel enjoys shocking her audience with her gruesome portrait of the times, yet these, and other shocks, are balanced by the touching naivete of the Giant's followers, whose fall from grace is not actually so much a fall as a recognition that they are already flat on their backs. Other stories have featured these themes - urban poverty, desperation, obsession - but nowhere have I seen them treated with more humor and wit than in this novel. For, in spite of the subject matter, this book is frequently hilarious. It is also quite beautiful. Mantel is a master of lyrical writing; her scenes are like paintings.

Beyond beautiful writing, humor, and worthy subject matter, what makes this book special is that it is not really about the Giant, his followers, the obsessive anatomist, the poverty, or the failure of dreams. These are motifs. The real theme is the "resurrection men," who appear sporadically throughout this novel. They mirror and elucidate the Giant's charming, and ultimately horrifying, tales. For it is the writer who resurrects characters, and who tells their tales. Mantel is the true "resurrection man," and her task, like the Giant's, is to charm, to horrify, and to raise the dead.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 13, 2012 5:24:30 AM PDT
Kathleen S. says:
Excellent review of a truly excellent book. Mantel's writing is lovely, isn't it?

Posted on Sep 14, 2012 1:08:17 PM PDT
e. verrillo says:
Yes, Mantel is wonderful. Even when her plots are sketchy, she is an absolute joy to read.
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