Summer reading;Books

30th July 1999 at 01:00
THE GIANT, O'BRIEN. By Hilary Mantel. Fourth Estate pound;6.99.

Share our reading groups' views on a range of contemporary fiction and non-fiction and join in the on-line discussion at This week we look at Hilary Mantel's haunting novel

Charles O'Brien, a genuine Irish giant, is the toast of London's finest riff-raff in 1780. John Hunter, an anatomist who buys corpses by the inch, is on his trail.


Keith Anderson is an education officer with Devon LEA

Joan Stark is national literacy consultant for South Cumbria

Lea Hurst teaches at Waveney School, Tonbridge, Kent

Susan Roberts teaches English and drama at Cromer High School, Norfolk

Pat Thompson is an English lecturer and Access co-ordinator at Charles

College of further education, Leicester

Nicola Manby teaches French part-time in London

KA "Bring the cows in now" must rate among the most beguiling of opening lines. This brief yet richly satisfying novel is filled with bizarre happenings, brazen images and characters whose earthiness you can smell. Amusing, gruesome, titillating and scary all at once, and with a Gothic-Celtic plot given shape by cut-glass prose, The Giant, O'Brien might be described as "William Hogarth stumbles upon Mary Shelley in the arms of Myles na Gopaleen". Read and enjoy.

JS Wherever you go on holiday, you will be transported to the brutal, disease-ridden life of 18th-century London and Ireland by this magical book. It contrasts the finest aspirations of human life, in Charles O'Brien's lyrical, antique stories and John Hunter's rigorous scientific enquiries, with the harsh realities of trade in bodies, dead and alive. Who could forget the detailed instruction course in the grisly trade of grave-robbing? A tale of "bliss and blood", a really gripping read.

LH I know from past experience that, having begun a Hilary Mantel novel, you willingly surrender yourself to the pleasures of her art. She reminds you of the awesome power of the storyteller to take you on a journey to foreign parts, courtesy of language, emotion and imagination. A kasbah couldn't render up more exotic sights and smells nor be populated by more fantastic characters. It's a real feast of a novel. Sights, sounds, smells, journeying and feasting - it's got to be everyone's idea of a holiday.

SR You enter a world of freaks and outcasts, humans valuable only for the price of their corpses, reduced to selling themselves and each other for bread. Yet there are imagined riches in the giant's compelling stories, and humour in the first encounters with two-storey houses and beds by poor Irishmen who talk like educated gentlemen. Though the ending is morbidly inevitable, when it happens the reader is immediately removed to another time. Not a comfortable read, but one that will haunt you.

PT Hilary Mantel draws on historical fact and creates a brilliant fiction. We warm to the wise, gentle giant from the start and admire his wish to restore poetry to the world. Mantel skilfully juxtaposes narratives and, as we read, connections emerge between O'Brien and the scientist, Hunter, as both try to make sense of life's mysteries by very different means. The novel is eloquently written; its metaphors resonate and the ending is heartbreaking. I read it twice.

NM An extraordinary insight into life at the bottom of London society in 1780. There is depression, poverty and ugliness, but also the gentle giant's poetic stories and dreams of the past glories of Ireland, beautifully and sometimes humorously evoked. John Hunter, the scientist and anatomist, believes that human beings can be reduced by dissection to their bones and constituent parts. Hilary Mantel conveys both the excitement of his discoveries and hypotheses about human descent, and her compassion for the poetry of the human soul.

Next week, 'Longitude' by Dava Sobel (Fourth Estate, pound;5.99)

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