The Giant comes over to London from Ireland, lured by the seductive words of Joe Vance, a con man with little knack for capitalism, though he promises the Giant whatever he might want. The Giant has a way with words, the gift of gab, the art of storytelling, and what he wants is simple: “six singing women to go before me” and comforts for all of his followers – the half-witted Jankin, who sometimes speaks with sense, and Pybus, a practical sort who knows cows better than people. And Connor and Claffey, who flatter and fawn in hopes of a meal or a taste of fame if they follow in the huge footsteps of the Giant.
What they don’t realize is that the Giant, settled in less-than-salubrious digs in London with only Bitch Mary to clean for him and his band of sycophants entranced away by life in the big city, is growing. His head hurts, his bones ache. He knows, if they do not, that growth in a giant is not a good sign. It forebodes his early demise. And yet there is one who loves the Giant, seeks his company, must have him – John Hunter, well named, for he must have his prey. He is an anatomist, failed brother to famous doctors, a grave-robber without portfolio who exists to dissect. Yes, he likes the Giant. Very much.
This is a story based on fact but far too merged with fiction and encased in the tales of the Giant to be believed. Yet belief is not necessary, only the spell of the telling. Who has ever considered what it would really have been like for Snow White when she moved in with the dwarves? That in exchange for their industry and cleanly habits, she would have to sleep with the eldest, and that the rest would watch? That because of their devilish doings, the villagers would surround, entrap and torture them for their iniquities? Not one of the Giant’s more pleasant sagas, but most of his stories, we find, are full of sumptuous but unattainable marvels and people, like the pig-faced girl, who do not meet their true love and come to a sad end. Like the Giant himself, brooding over his increasing height, and sleeping with a sack of gold under his huge head.
Hilary Mantel is a prize-winning author of fiction (A Change of Climate,
A Place of Greater Safety, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street) and has created, in The Giant, O'Brien, an intelligent melancholic whose ideals cannot be realized and who will inevitably be brought to ground by the zealous machinations both of his traitorous best friends and his worst enemy and fondest admirer. It is a book that gives a flavor of London at a time when “cobblers sleep under their stalls and milk-walkers in the cellar with the cow, where the cow is dying from lack of light and air, where the people are dying of dropsy, quinsy, tisick, measles, croup, gout, canker, teething, overlaying, mold-shot head, thrush, cough, whooping-cough, dueling, surfeit, pleurisy, dysentery, lethargy, child-bed, kings-evil and unknown causes,” while the likes of John Hunter and his wife can sleep beneath “a gallimaufry of cupids on the panels of their bedroom wall.”