When her lover dies suddenly, all Catherine has left is her work. In an act of compassion her manager at London’s Swinburne Museum gives her a very particular project: a box of intricate clockwork parts that constitute a nineteenth-century automaton, a beautiful mechanical bird. It’s an object made of equal parts magic, love, madness and science, a delight that contains the seeds of our age’s downfall. Once Catherine discovers the diary of the man who commissioned it, one obsession merges into another.
After the sudden death of her married lover, London museum conservator Catherine Gehrig channels her grief into the task of restoring a 19th-century automaton, in Carey's powerful novel on the frailty of the human body and the emotional life we imbue in machines. Catherine, a horologist at the Swinburne Museum, and curator Matthew Tindall carried on a secret affair for 13 years. After Matthew dies of a heart attack, Catherine's boss assigns her a project in the Swinburne Annex, away from the gossip. Numb with heartache, she's uncharacteristically uninterested in opening eight sealed tea chests until the day of her lover's funeral, when she discovers inside the chests 11 notebooks filled by Englishman Henry Brandling in 1854. The narrative then shifts to Henry's point-of-view with his discovery of the inventor Vaucanson's plans for a mechanical duck, just the thing, Henry thinks, to make his young consumptive son, Percy, happy. He travels to Germany in search of a master clockmaker, and Carey (Parrot and Olivier in America) alternates between present-day Catherine's progress with repairing the avian automaton and Henry's notebooks, about which Catherine becomes more obsessed as Henry meets a mysterious and potentially dangerous craftsman who promises to build him his "heart's desire." Catherine and Henry, linked both by the automaton and by grief, ponder questions of life and death, questions that, as posed by Carey, are more fascinating than any solution.
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I was totally captured by this intriguing book. I enjoyed the parallel stories, the humanity and the twists and surprises. It's quite a voyage for both the emotions and the intellect.
As always P.Carey is just Brill!