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the Complete Review
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The Giant, O'Brien

Hilary Mantel

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To purchase The Giant, O'Brien

Title: The Giant, O'Brien
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 191 pages
Availability: The Giant, O'Brien - US
The Giant, O'Brien - UK
The Giant, O'Brien - Canada
Der riesige O'Brien - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : a fine writer, treading a bit far afield

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A- 4/10/1998 Margot Livesy
Daily Telegraph A+ 16/9/1998 David Robson
The Economist . 10/10/1998 .
The Guardian B- 12/9/1998 Kate Glasspool
The Guardian A 19/6/1999 Carrie O'Grady
The LA Times A 5/10/1998 Jonathan Levi
London Rev. of Books . 1/10/1998 John Mullan
Newsday B 8/11/1998 Merle Rubin
The NY Rev. of Books A+ 8/10/1998 John Bayley
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 11/10/1998 Walter Kendrick
San Francisco Chronicle A 14/2/1999 Carey Harrison
The Scotsman C- 10/10/1998 Antonia Logue
The Spectator A 12/9/1998 Teresa Waugh
The Times A- 17/9/1998 Claire Messud
TLS . 4/9/1998 David Nokes
World Lit.Today B Fall/1999 Mary Kaiser

  Review Consensus:

  Not a true consensus, though most think it very good.

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a tough read, but it rewards the diligent." - Carrie O'Grady, The Guardian

  • "It is one thing to spin fiction from history and another to spin truth from fiction. These grotesqueries are Mantel's grandest creations." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Hilary Mantel has felt herself into the poetics of history with singular intensity. Although her novel is in one sense a brilliant pastiche, drawing on Swift and on Joyce, deploying all the tricks of understatement and of what the great Russian formalist Shklovsky called "making it strange," it triumphantly justifies and reanimates these well-worn methods. It becomes her own style, as acute and arresting as is her vision of history." - John Bayley, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Giant, O'Brien isn't billed as a horror story. With its careful period setting, its spare, elegant prose and its stretches of wistful fantasy as the giant spins his tales, the novel plainly has higher aspirations. But the ludicrous, horrific Hunter overshadows the rest of the characters." - Walter Kendrick, The New York Times Book Review

  • "No reader who loves fiction should miss this opportunity to read this extraordinary work. Mantel's language blends true strangeness with delicious immediacy, and with every new book she is redefining the range, the power and the urgency of the historical novel." - Carey Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(S)uch is Mantel's miraculous command of language and so extraordinary her ability to tell a story that, after the first few puzzling pages, she had me in her power, torn between nausea and fascination. (...) Mantel moves her story on with a remarkable lightness of touch and there is nothing for it but to bow before the exquisite talent with which she has turned a sow's ear into a silk purse." - Teresa Waugh, The Spectator

  • "It is a curious message for a novelist to tell; but Hilary Mantel sounds oddly serious. The Giant, O'Brien has a weary, off-balance quality that catches where we least expect it. Things are about to happen, or have just happened, and we missed them or waved them through." - David Nokes, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mantel interweaves these elements with great ingenuity, and creates a very coherent world for the novel, but in the end, it falls short of any profound insight into the characters or the period. Instead, The Giant, O'Brien becomes another of Mantel's very clever Gothic tales based on historical realities." - Mary Kaiser, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       We enjoy this English writer's work. Her contemporary An Experiment in Love, and her foreign forays A Change of Climate and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street were all, with small reservations, eminently enjoyable. Here is something different -- or, rather, not. Set mainly in the Ireland and London of the 1780s there are freaks galore (none more prominent than said giant O'Brien) and an anatomist who has bodies dug up so that he can autopsy and study them. In other words, characters we have seen about two dozen times too often in recent years. Vaguely based on historic personages Mantel does try hard to do more with her characters, but it is not a novel story.
       The giant is a fairly gentle and intelligent creature, an Irishman with a gift for storytelling, and he is willing to put himself on display to earn money -- going to England for that purpose. Generous, he has a band of followers, a substitute sort of family, whom he takes care of. Ominously he is still growing, his bones and joints creaking as he continues to expand. His counterpart (the novel is told in alternating episodes) is a mad Scotsman, a doctor or rather anatomist who has amassed a huge collection of specimens and wants to add the giant to his collection. Negotiating both with the doomed giant (who will inevitably literally grow out of his body) and his supposed friends the doctor wants to get the body at all costs.
       There are plot sidelines galore, including a competing giant, said to approach O'Brien's height and said to be growing even faster, as well as such ideas as the doctor's experiments with syphilis -- quite too much to stuff into such a small book. The giant is the best-drawn character, sympathetic and interesting, and his career is fairly well described. Doctor Hunter, based on the real John Hunter, is too exaggerated a character for our tastes. Mantel's description of him is never wholly convincing -- not that we can't believe his bizarre deeds, but she does not explain them in any sufficiently convincing manner. She seems nearly satisfied in presenting the reader with all his mad scientist ideas and leaving it at that.
       The plot is too much for Mantel to handle. The redeeming feature of the novel is that she writes so well, and there are moments which make it all worthwhile. We support writers who write well (a rarity), and so we do recommend this volume with some reservations -- hoping that Mantel will leave history behind her in her next effort. Readers who have not grown bored of the fill of misunderstood freakish characters and mad scientists that populate so much current fiction should enjoy Mantel's stylish and inventive writing.

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The Giant, O'Brien: Reviews: Hilary Mantel: Other books by Hilary Mantel under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Hilary Mantel was born in 1952. Author of several highly praised novels, she won the Hawthornden Prize in 1996.

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