MORE GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2015
Amnesia, by Peter Carey
As I have stated before (with tiresome regularity), I am this Australian author’s devoted fan. Everything he writes has delighted me. (see June 2012 review below) He is the consummate writer, a wordsmith extraordinaire and a master of plotting – and every story is vastly different, including ‘Amnesia’, Mr Carey’s latest, a vigorous nod to computers in general and hackers in particular.
In ‘Amnesia’ he also gives us a potted history of 80 years of Australian politics, concentrating in particular on the shameful machinations by the CIA (never proven) to bring down the legally elected Labour Government of Gough Whitlam in 1975, for Whitlam was threatening to close down an American ‘facility’ at Woomera: this dog was snapping instead of tail-wagging for its master and had to be removed, by any means possible.
A man who remembers that time vividly is Felix Moore, a former crusading journalist whose career is gurgling down the S bend, thanks to injudicious comments made in his latest book which have earned approbation from the court and the banning of his masterwork from publication. And, as if that weren’t enough misfortune for a single day, his drunken efforts to make a grand gesture by burning all the copies of his labours results in the near razing of his family home, and the eviction of himself from the bosom of his family. Felix has reached the bottom: no money, no job, no family, no hope. Nothing.
Until his longtime friend and resident shady character, enormously rich property developer Woody Townes steps in to offer him a deal, complete with luxurious accommodation and all he can eat (and drink): he wants Felix to write a biography of Gaby Bailleux, a young woman who has escaped from prison thanks to a worm she released into the computers of Australia’s prison system. Needless to say, hundreds of other prisoners walked out and disappeared too, not to mention in the American prison system, also susceptible to the same worm: it has lost prisoners by the tens of thousands. The CIA are in pursuit but Gaby is nowhere to be found. Woody, with the help of Gaby’s mother renowned actress Celine Bailleux, wants Felix to ‘humanise’ Gaby, to present her in the best possible light, preferably as a crusading cyber-evangelist, an angel battling against evil corporate technology, for if she is caught and extradited to the USA they are talking treason and the death penalty. Felix is happy to oblige, seeing an opportunity to resurrect his own former journalistic career and integrity by doing so.
All well and good, but the more research Felix undertakes, the more bad smells start to emerge, and with Mr Carey’s usual facility, the first half of the novel transforms itself from a great Australian comic romp into Part Two, where the real, serious intent of the story – and Gaby’s intentions – are revealed. Once again this peerless writer has produced the perfect story: a madcap blend of humour, history, corporate greed, eco-terrorism, and all manner of technological nasties. He’s a master. Most highly recommended.
The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey
Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most famous and prolific novelists; he has won numerous literary awards, including the Man Booker Prize (twice!), and each new work is greeted with delight by his legions of admirers – including me: after reading his marvellous comic novel ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’ I am a committed fan, and while there is much of a mechanical bent that went right over my head in this latest book, there is also much to savour and admire; his wonderful facility for dialogue; his great flare for mood and nuance, and the complete credibility of his characters.
Catherine Gehrig is a Conservator and Horologist for one of London’s many museums, the fictional Swinburne. She restores and repairs all manner of clocks and antique mechanisms, and has had an all-consuming love affair for the last 13 years with a curator of Metals at the same institution, Matthew Tindall, a married man with two grown sons. Weekends and holidays with her lover, and her profession are all she needs to feel whole and a perfectly functioning, happy woman – until Matthew dies suddenly of a massive heart attack. Catherine is reeling, unmanned, shocked to the core – and she can’t turn to anyone for sympathy, for her great love affair has been kept secret from her work colleagues, and she has no family she can turn to. She is completely, frighteningly alone – she cannot even attend his funeral, for the official, despised ‘wife’ will be centre stage as chief mourner.
Catherine hits the booze for the next few days; she can’t concentrate at all on her work, that of restoring a beautiful French clock, and vodka is the only thing that can get her through the nights - until her Head of Department, Eric Croft, presents her with a challenge that will eventually rouse her from her terrible grief sufficiently enough to start functioning again: the restoration of an automaton, constructed in the 19th century for a rich English manufacturer, Henry Brandling. His young son Percy was ailing and tubercular; after embarking on many different and desperate cures, Brandling decided that an automaton, a mechanical duck, would be the last, greatest entertainment for his precious little boy. Brandling’s journals are included with the huge jumble of parts, and the account of his trip to Germany in 1854 to find the very best Black Forest clockmaker to construct his dream enthrals Catherine: Henry and Catherine narrate alternate chapters and the reader is enthralled too by Henry’s account of the man who eventually constructs for Henry not a duck, but something much more: is he a liar, a conman, a visionary, a genius – or all of those things?
Peter Carey writes movingly about the grief suffered by both his protagonists: the reader has great sympathy for them even though they are not always likeable, but the last third of the book is most memorable for the thrill that starts to build as the automaton, splendid and awe-inspiring, nears completion, and the gradual claiming of centre-stage by Catherine’s gorgeous young Sloane Ranger assistant, who has started to manifest some worrying problems of her own. There is also a last, final mystery for the reader to chew on, and this reader certainly didn’t solve it – engines big or small have always stayed under the bonnet for me, but the historical enigma intrigued me greatly, and probably will for a long time. Highly recommended.