The first protagonist, Catherine is a not-especially likeable woman in her forties, shown at a time of maximum disruption to her life because of the death of her lover. Since she is mostly distraught, drunk, or both, it is hard to care for her. This is not a fault, of course, but it does mean that the narrative strand must be strong enough to withstand the lack of empathy engendered in the readers. That this narrative strand succeeds – indeed is the more interesting of the two strands in the novel – is testament to Carey’s skill. How does he do it? By making Catherine, for all her faults and reasons to dislike her – real. Her work, intricate, specialised, impressive – is described with great skill, demonstrating powerful research but also writerly restraint. We can believe in Catherine and her predicament, and this alone makes us interested.
The second protagonist, Henry Brandling, is a prickly Victorian gentleman with all the insecurities and lack of self-awareness you might expect from such a person. In Germany to procure the automaton for his ill son, and embarrassingly out of his depth, he is literally an innocent abroad. This is extremely challenging for a writer to pull off: how to invest emotion and drama in a story narrated by a man with an upper lip so stiff you could whet a knife on it; and how to suggest drama and emotion through a man who is oblivious of either?
It seems that even Carey, the master character-builder may have met his match this time. Some of Brandling’s latter notebook entries are relayed to us second-hand by Catherine, allowing Carey to filter his words through Catherine’s sensibilities and thereby invest more emotion in proceedings than the sober Mr Brandling alone could have provided. It’s a cop-out, I suppose, but it’s a very well-written cop-out, and one can excuse anything that’s well-written.