Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Giant, O'Brien

Looking back over all the books read in 2008 I am tempted to think that my favorite is the one I just finished: The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel, published in 1998.

It did amaze and dismay me, though, when I started looking for images of the book and its writer for this post, to see that most of the press reviews ten years ago when the novel came out were negative. How could she bear it, the maligned Hilary Mantel, knowing in her own heart what quality of work she had done? Authors need an unreasonable amount of stamina.

This profile shot was taken in the late nineties, so it's contemporary with the book I have spent the last couple of days inhabiting. More recent photos of the author have a more pedestrian, stylist-enhanced quality, as she has in the ensuing decade become far more of an entrenched luminary. And God bless her, I hope she has all the success and recognition she can possibly want, though I recently read in the London Review of Books a piece she wrote about her sufferings and humiliations in a typically nasty hospital where her husband was confined for some scary, ill-defined ailment.

What I loved about The Giant, O'Brien was the amazing, distinct voices she gave the characters. Critics called the book gloomy or morbid, seemingly because what happens in the book is gloomy and morbid, the world of Irish freaks put on exhibition in London in the 1780s. And everybody comes to a bad end. Well, so what? The end, then as now, is bad for everyone, but Mantel's cadences are gorgeous enough to redeem what is inescapable. And then there is the unadorned warmth that animates the whole project, a tenderness for the human plight. Book reviewers are like every other go-getter journalist, in the main, pretending that mortality itself is a fallacy.

The giant, reduced to a spectacle, remains in his essence a storyteller, though people in general prefer looking to listening –

He mixed his tales like this: bliss and blood. The roof of gingerbread, then the slinking arrival of a wolf with a sweet tooth. The white-skinned, well-fleshed woman who turns to bone beneath a man's caress; the lake where gold pieces bob, that drowns all who fish for them. Merit gains no reward, nor duty done; the lucky prosper, and any of us could be that. Jesu, he thought. There were days, now, when he felt weakness run like water through his legs that were as high as another man's body. Sometimes his wrists trembled at the weight of his own hands. A man could be at the end of his invention, he could be told out; and those who have not eaten that day have sharp tempers and form a testy audience. Only last week he had asked: "Did you ever hear the story of St. Kevin and O'Toole's goose?" and a dozen voices had shouted, "OH, NOT AGAIN!"