HILARY MANTEL HAS made a name taking snippets of historical fact and turning them into long, dreary novels. In her latest, The Giant O'Brien, she starts with a skeleton that hangs in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and spins the tale of its former owner, an elongate Irishman named Charlie Bryne who traveled to London in 1748 to make his fortune as a sideshow attraction.
To be clear, Mantel points out that her novel bears no relation to the actual life of Bryne. While the real Charles Bryne was probably a miserable freak, her jolly giant is an educated troubadour, a relic of Ireland's mawkishly romanticized past. When the bard business stops paying, the giant enlists an agent named Joe and heads off to England to exhibit his most obvious talent. He brings with him an audience: a ragged crew of thieves and drunks culled from the finest ditches in Ireland. In London, Bryne and company meet an aspiring prostitute named Bitch Mary (the two most common names for an Irish lass according to Mantel), and John Hunter, a ghoulish surgeon who is obsessed with the notion of dissecting a giant. The fact that Bryne's skeleton ends up on the wall of the Royal College of Surgeons makes this novel's denouement somewhat predictable.
As in her other books, Mantel builds tragedy from the collision of her ill-fated characters. In her last novel, A Place of Greater Safety, these small doomed people were swept up in the madness of the French Revolution, ultimately destroying one another against the indifferent backdrop of history. The current of fate in The Giant O'Brien is more subtle, but no less destructive. The Giant (art) and the surgeon (science) are driven together, and only one will survive. Mantel gives the clash of the titan and the physician only skeletal attention, though, instead letting their stories meander toward intersection through an intricately rendered historical landscape. To her credit, she does a skillful job of painting merry old England as the fetid cesspool that it no doubt was during the mid-18th century. Bryne's London is a decidedly unromantic melange of oppressive filth and human degradation, where, as Mantel writes, "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, king's evil, and unknown causes."
Apart from its genuinely gloomy setting, however, The Giant O'Brien falls short of its ambitious design. The writing is an unsettling mix of black humor (which is not funny) and relentlessly drab tragedy (which isn't tragic; none of the characters are engaging enough to elicit empathy). Mantel's Irish are obscene, dirty drunks, found squatting in ditches and murdering one another over potatoes. Apparently in the interest of fairness, her English characters are also clumsily stereotyped as cold, morose fiends. Even the giant and the surgeon John Hunter, who are blatantly plopped at either ends of the great tug-of-war between science and romanticism, seem flat and lifeless. Without some fleshing out, even a man of Charles Bryne's historical stature is nothing more than a pile of dusty bones.