(4.5 stars) Although he has often dealt with the themes of identity, reality, and what it means to be human, Australian author Peter Carey creates a new approach to these ideas in this complex and sometimes strange novel with two overlapping narratives set one hundred fifty years apart. Catherine Gehrig, a Curator of Horology (clockwork) at the Swinburne Museum in London, has led a secret life for thirteen years, enjoying an affair with Matthew Tindall, the married Head Curator of Metals. On April 21, 2010, she arrives at work to discover that Matthew is dead, and that she is apparently the last to know. Frantic with grief, she cannot even imagine how to go on with her life without Matthew.
Head Curator of Horology, Eric Croft, arranges for her to take sick leave and then to move to the privacy of the museum's Annexe in Olympia, where she will have a special job - to go through eight boxes filled with assorted gears, screws, and machine parts, along with assorted papers associated with an automaton of a duck from the mid-1850s, then restore it. When Catherine discovers notebooks in the boxes, she introduces the second narrative, a detailed diary which opens in June, 1854, and features a style of writing compatible with the period. Henry Brandling, a wealthy Englishman with an invalid son believes that if he can find someone to make an amusing duck automaton based on the real plans for "Vaucanson's duck," made in the eighteenth century, that Percy will be filled with "magnetic agitation," which will help him conquer his disease. Brandling travels to Germany to Schwarzwald to find a clockmaker who will make the automaton.
Within this unique and fascinating framework, Carey explores many different aspects of reality and what makes humans unique. Automatons seem real, and the more complex the machinery is, the more "real" they seem, ironically. Henry Brandling does not know if the people he has hired are being honest with him and whether he will ever actually see the toy he has already paid for. Sumper, the man who is ultimately in charge of the task, meets Brandling at the inn the night he arrives, but he already knows who he is and why Brandling is there, adding an element of mystery and otherworldliness to what has seemed so far a fairly straightforward tale. Monsieur Arnaud, who works with Sumper, collects fairy tales. Catherine's view of her own reality also changes as the restoration work continues.
While all this is going on, other motifs arise and continue, and these are sometimes mystifying since they do not feel completely integrated into the narrative: a playing card showing the "deep order" of the city of Karlsruhe, a sketch of the city arranged as a perfect circle; stories about Sir Albert Cruickshank, a mathematician who developed an early adding machine and a primitive computer; Samper's creation of a satiric automaton of Jesus Christ for Cruickshank; and eventually, the BP gulf oil spill, which began the day that Matthew died, leading to the question of "Who made the machine that kills the ocean?" Fewer of these motifs would have strengthened the narrative and the themes, for this reader at least.
The great dialogue, unusual subject matter, important themes treated in unique ways, and characters who engage our interest make this a story to celebrate, but the narrative, though wildly creative, is weakened when all these competing elements and motifs are introduced as parallels and overlapping images. There is much to ponder here. Perhaps a bit too much. Mary Whipple