A master-class of writing and human insight is to be found in Peter Carey’s new novel with its thrillingly off-kilter focus. The central character is introduced on the day of her colleague’s death, a married colleague with whom she has had a secret, 14-year relationship.
Before we know anything about Catherine Gehrig, we are witnessing her devastation at this loss. Like the relationship itself she tries to keep her grief secret.
She is a conservator and her boss lands her a major project – stacks of boxes containing notes and diaries but principally the mechanical parts of what looks like a huge automated duck from the mid-1800s. The novel is the intertwining of two stories – Catherine’s and the historical story of how Henry Brandling came to travel from England to Germany to have it made. The focus centres on this strange object, and Catherine’s and Henry’s relationship with it. It all works so well not because of the intricacy of historical detail but because of the depth of human experience and emotion wrapped around this automaton, or mechanical folly.
Catherine and Henry are both broken people. How this duck fares in the desperate life of Henry and in the grief-stricken world of Catherine in contemporary London is what enthrals to the end.
Carey relishes the oddness of the scenario not for its comic potential but for the opportunity to look at human frailty and suffering from an oblique angle.
Henry and his wife have lost their daughter to consumption and their only other child, a son whom Henry adores, suffers from the same disease. While they remain under the one roof, the couple’s marriage is effectively over. The only love shown to Henry is that of his son. But Henry Brandling is a kind of a wilful weakling, freighted with heavy emotional baggage, who leaves home to bring his son back an automaton that is in a way superhuman. His last hope is the mechanical magic will save his child from death.
Like Henry, Catherine is a character floating through Carey’s godless world. As she picks through the notes left by Henry she finds another lost soul. As she aches with lost love, she reads that Henry’s ache is the fear of losing his only love. Never a gloomy tale it is jauntily written and often very moving.
While it is a godless world for both of them, Carey does not cast them adrift on a sea of random indifference. He invests in them a caring love. However lost they are, however deluded and naïve, Carey is always with them rather than above them. The novelist shows these delicate, wounded people love and respect throughout.
Eric Croft, the head curator at the museum where Catherine works, would certainly be ripe for authorial skewering with his intrusions, manipulations, vanities and political chicanery, but it is possible to actually like the guy.
With Catherine hitting the bottle, deleting emails on her work computer between herself and her dead lover and trying to cope with a deranged and gifted new intern, and, on the other side, Henry’s crazed but undoubted love for his child, there is so much powerful human emotion rising from the pages.
The Irish Examiner, Saturday, March 24, 2012