Books: Low life and tall tales

Carol Birch visits Georgian London and savours the real stink of history: The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99, 224pp
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The Independent Culture
MODERN HISTORICAL novels too often demonstrate an inability to really believe in anything outside our own time. They serve up the past as if it consisted of 20th-century people wearing fancy dress and mouthing a few quaint turns of phrase.

How refreshing, then, to read a new novel that magically creates an illusion of the Age of Enlightenment. Hilary Mantel puts the stink of the 18th century into our nostrils, makes us see an umbrella as if for the first time, and evokes the particular horror of the dissector's craft in an age that yoked belief in bodily resurrection with a spirit of scientific enquiry.

The story is simple, the characters memorable and believable. Charles O'Brien, "the Surprising Irish Giant," emerges from the mists of a Celtic twilight of turf-smoky cabins, hedge scholars and wandering poets, where life is harsh, death close, the presence of elementals and "gentlefolk" (fairies) taken for granted. This is evoked with a minimum of sentimentality.

With his followers - gentle Jankin, impatient Claffey, the boy Pybus and inept impresario Joe Vance - the Giant leaves behind certain starvation to become part of the bizarre circuit of "nature's curlicues and flourishes" who compete fiercely to satisfy London's insatiable appetite for freaks.

The circle widens to include child prostitute Bitch Mary, the Spotted Boy, the Human Pincushion and What Is it, "a thing beyond describing" that drags its chain in the next room.

Mantel's compassion peaks in the unbearably poignant story of the pig- faced woman, Tannikin Skinker.

The progress of the Giant is interspersed with the life of the choleric and obsessive John Hunter, a surgeon and anatomist. A man "bound to fact and observation," his speculations include cryonics, inoculation and artificial insemination.

Hunter buys corpses for dissection, fresh from the gallows or the grave. Sometimes, if the subject is interesting enough, he even pays in advance for those still living but sure to die.

In this world, human beings are chattels. Bitch Mary's hair is stolen to enhance a lady's wig, and the freaks are bought and sold as a matter of course.

Hunter and the Giant inevitably meet: Hunter the new spirit of scientific enquiry, O'Brien the clairvoyant, the poetical mystic.

Symbols of an age pulling both ways, they are not cyphers but rounded characters. "Hunter has no God," says the Giant. "What is faith? He cannot atomise it. What is hope? He cannot boil its bones. What is charity - aye, what is charity, to a bold experimentalist such as he?"

Nevertheless, Hunter frequently finds tears in his eyes when faced with a body on the slab: "It is the dead themselves who move him to tears ... Not just still, and not just cold, but waxen, quenched, extinct - and gone ... gone where?"

Mantel's tale is involving and beautifully told, enlivened by shifting perspectives and punctuated by the stories the Giant tells, each with the ring of tradition while reflecting some aspect of the novel.

As London at first affords a living to this dignified "aristocrat of height", ultimately it betrays him as his novelty wears off and his value depreciates: "Every night ... the Giant dreamed of the Edible House. The travellers who arrive at the house begin by eating it, but it ends by eating them."