The root of the word ‘automaton’ is the Greek automatos, or ‘acting of itself’. A lifelike machine is an uncanny and fertile image, and forms the central metaphor that propels the plots and subplots of Peter Carey’s latest novel The Chemistry of Tears. The themes evoked by the idea of a fantastical nineteenth-century automaton are rich: the fine, unsettling line between human and machine; the relationships between the living, the dead, and the never quite alive; the power of human invention and obsession; order and chaos; fragility, both human and mechanical; the unpredictable drive of technology once set in motion.

These themes are artfully constructed around two intersecting storylines. The first involves a conservator and horologist (an expert in the study and making of clocks) at a small London museum. Her name is Catherine Gehrig, and her secret lover of thirteen years has just died, leaving her devastated by a grief she must keep hidden. Catherine is assigned a special project by the chief conservator of horology, a kind man and the only person to know of Catherine’s clandestine, deeply passionate affair with her married colleague. The project involves the restoration and assembly of a nineteenth-century automaton – a marvellous bird commissioned by a man named Henry Brandling. The second plotline involves Henry’s quest to have this machine manufactured in a desperate attempt to cure his sickly, beloved son through the process of ‘magnetic agitation’. We learn this story via Catherine’s reading of Henry’s diaries, which arrive with the disassembled bird.

Fragility is the characteristic linking man and machine in this intricate story. Almost every character and mechanism is depicted as vulnerable, on the point of imminent fragmentation, whether due to delicacy of construction, grief, illness or the kind of heightened sensitivity that makes certain people unable to function easily in the world. Ultimately, though, it is not the chaotic natures of these brilliant, damaged characters that leads to disaster, but the inexorable progress of technological development.

The theme of what human beings are capable of creating through the power of the imagination is not new to Carey. In The Chemistry of Tears, the focus on the mechanical leads to a darker meditation on the history of technology in general. In Henry’s story, we are poised on the eve of the industrial revolution. Clockmaker-craftsmen are being replaced by workers whose task is to perform a single repetitive action in the chain of manufacture. Henry’s quest leads him deep into the Black Forest of Germany following Herr Sumper, the visionary clockmaker who will construct his machine. The villagers of Furtwangen are suspicious of Sumper and his inventions. ‘They stay here with their hairless thighs, their depressed chests, their fairy stories’, Sumper complains to Henry. ‘They have Puss in Boots but they have no idea the entire universe is changing.’ The implication is that our present moment may be similarly characterised by denial in the face of imminent transformation.

This is a cleverly constructed novel, all the more so because its various structural devices and interlocking parts themselves gesture to the machine that provides the book’s main thematic drive. However, this dexterity does not always equate to narrative pleasure. The two stories alternate chapter by chapter, and the consequent switching of focus from one plotline to the other inhibits engagement with either. And despite the magic of the Henry Brandling narrative, the contemporary plot is more compelling. Perhaps belying the theme of how seductive technological invention can be, the great innovation of this novel is the character of Catherine Gehrig. She is prickly, difficult, violently bereaved, but endearing. Her love for her dead darling, Matthew, is described with aching precision, and its idiosyncrasies and shared codes are genuinely moving: ‘I buried my nose inside Matthew’s hat. “Snuffle” we would have said. “I snuffle you.”’ The erratic ways in which Catherine attempts to cope with her grief are also rendered in touching, convincing detail: the sudden desperate need to buy a beautifully made and very expensive handbag, the obsessive involvement in the fortunes of a stranger from the past, the excessive imbibing of vodka.

Human love – Henry’s for his son and Catherine’s for Matthew – is the centrifugal force animating this novel. Perhaps the unfortunate side effect of this is that the interest and ingeniousness of the automaton itself is diminished. Yet the very strength of identification and empathy elicited by the character of Catherine reveals the unsettling insight at the heart of The Chemistry of Tears: that the depth of feeling for those we love will always be the strongest motivating force behind our actions, regardless of their potential, uncalculated costs.

Emily Bitto is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne. Her debut novel-in-progress won the 2011 Penguin Manuscript Prize.