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Book Review / Fiction

A Grim Fairy Tale Taken From History

THE GIANT, O'BRIEN, by Hilary Mantel, Henry Holt, $22, 192 pages

October 05, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Spinning facts into gold, the coin of fiction, is the peculiar joy of certain novelists. Dull patches of history catch the eye of these alchemists, encouraging them to heat their secret crucibles until history glows with the fire of literature. Often the residue is dross. But in the case of "The Giant, O'Brien," Hilary Mantel has turned out the real thing.

The facts are simple. In 1782, a Scottish doctor acquired the corpse of the renowned Irish giant O'Brien; the skeleton hangs today in London's Royal College of Surgeons. Onto these bones, Mantel drapes an equally simple story. Driven from Ireland by hunger and the promises of an agent named Vance, O'Brien and his train of drinking buddies descend on England seeking fortune in the circus that is London.

And a circus it is--although not in the Barnum & Bailey world of Tom Jones or Moll Flanders. Too skint to afford the rococo makeup of Fielding or Defoe, Mantel's thieves and whores are simply hungry people, petty entrepreneurs with their eyes open for the chance to make a farthing, whether it be off a talking pig or a giant.

At first, in their bumbling way, the Irishmen succeed, attracting a well-heeled crowd of the curious rich. The most energetic voyeur is the Scottish doctor himself, an anatomist named John Hunter, a surgeon forced by the superstition of religion to engage grave robbers and worse in order to advance his particular corner of medical science, "what they call in England a crocus . . . interested in cutting up whatever he finds at the limits of life." As the novelty of the giant wears thin among the plutocracy, and as the giant sickens toward death, Hunter's interest in the future corpse grows.

But it is the giant himself, O'Brien, who occupies the center ring, not with the enormity of his body but with the beauty of his poetry. Against all odds, he is the man of the Age of Reason, with an outsized sensibility to match his frame.

Prized by his fellows as much as a fabulist as a freak, he can match the ribald with the romantic, the boasts of his sexual conquests reading like some bastard child of Cleland and Wordsworth. "When the years have flown," he tells the Fleet Street gawkers, "and my dear delights are grandmas, they will need only to think of the business we transacted, and their dried parts will spin like windmills in a gale."

The most fascinating of O'Brien's tales are mutations of other authors--the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, to name a few--stories we recognize as stories in the same way we recognize the giant as a man but whose limbs and joints have grown into freakish horrors. Snow White is housed and fed by the seven dwarfs, but the social contract of the Giant's version insists that every service has its price.

Charity exists only to give the maiden a choice of bed and dwarf. Rescuing princes are few, and the rabble is many. Beyond the forest lies a village that has little patience for perversion. "When night fell, they saw the light of torches dance between the trees." The shocked populace has become a lynch mob, beating the dwarfs to death and chasing Snow White "into the forest, screaming, barefoot and without her cloak, until she was lost among the trees, and the night's blackness ate her up."

It is one thing to spin fiction from history and another to spin truth from fiction. These grotesqueries are Mantel's grandest creations.

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