London 2010: Catherine Gehrig, conservator at the Swinburne museum, learns of the sudden death of her colleague and lover of thirteen years. As the mistress of a married man, she must struggle to keep the depth of her anguish to herself. The one other person who knows Catherine’s secret—her boss—arranges for her to be given a special project away from prying eyes in the museum’s Annexe. Usually controlled and rational, but now mad with grief, Catherine reluctantly unpacks an extraordinary, eerie automaton that she has been charged with bringing back to life.
'Dear Percy, I did not really want a swan. In spite of what I said, I did not even wish to leave your side. I never wanted more, darling boy, than to make you well. Dear God, may he still be there and waiting for me. Dear Lord, I pray, let him be saved. May I deserve admittance, in your sight.' (Henry Brandling, 1845).
The premise is one of love lost through death, grief, illness, and abandonment in the worst possible way. The coil of unending suffering, some self-inflicted and some as a result of life itself, winding its way through these pages as hands on a clock move ever forward and backward.
Protagonist, Catherine Gehrig, is a character who finds herself grieving over the 'secret' lover she had for thirteen years, who was her co-worker as well. When one reads her chapters, her moods and emotions are palpable and heightened; one could say erratic. She's in shock and grieving. Her one saving grace is her career as a horologist (clock maker) at London's Swinburne Museum.
Peter Carey has beautifully composed a sonnet of love in all its forms: positive and negative. He does not shield the reader from his fictionalized reality, instead he opens the blinds for them, invites them in, if they choose to walk through his open door, then welcome. Be prepared for a story with two story lines spanning two decades between a man and a woman, whom although shall never meet, share one primary objective: Catherine puts the automaton duck or swan together as a way of saving her sanity and working through her grief while 'grieving' Henry puts it together as a final tribute to his dying son.