Like Andrew Miller (Ingenious Pain, Casanova in Love) and Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower), 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 known as the Age of Reason. 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 like: 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 points of view, she offers no easy answers, but instead turns a disturbing spotlight on questions that continue to resonate to the present day. --Alix Wilber [via]