A puzzling novel that doesn’t reveal its secrets easily.
The latest from the renowned and prolific Carey (Parrot and Olivier in America, 2010, etc.) is too fanciful to pass as realism yet too inscrutable for parable or fable. Though all of it (or at least half of it) concerns a grieving woman’s attempt to re-engage with life after the death of her married lover, the prevailing spirit is comedic, even whimsical, rather than tragic. And the prevailing metaphor is that of clockwork, the mechanical precision of the museum where she serves as a curator, with “a considerable horological department, a world-famous collection of clocks and watches, automata and other wind-up engines,” a place where “for years I thought clockmaking must still any turmoil in one’s breast. I was so confident of my opinion, so completely wrong.” To keep protagonist and occasional narrator Catherine from going haywire, her supervisor assigns her an archival task: to study the diaries of a man who had commissioned a mechanical duck for his ailing son more than a century earlier. Some chapters are all Catherine, some are from the diaries of Henry and his adventures with the mechanical duck, and some mix the two, though the reader must make leaps of conjecture to connect the writing of Henry and the response from Catherine. Then the plot thickens, as it appears that the circumstances surrounding her affair were more complicated than Catherine had realized, and she comes to suspect that the pages she reads were written specifically for her: “He anticipated someone would watch him through the wormhole, that was clear. He wrote for that person.” While reading about the attempts to construct a mechanical duck that would appear animated, practically alive, Catherine feels herself turning into a machine: “Ingest, I thought, digest, excrete, repeat.”
For what it’s worth, the thematic key would seem to be a Latin epigram, which translates, “You cannot see what you can see.” It’s a novel that will amuse or challenge some and frustrate others.