Peter Carey is a voice man. He writes different voices very well, and puts them to good use in telling compelling stories. In The Chemistry Of Tears, Carey tells two interwoven stories - that of Catherine Gehrig, a modern day museum conservator grieving the loss of Matthew, her adulterous lover and that of Henry Brandling, a Victorian eccentric travelling to Germany to commission a clockwork duck for his ailing son. The trick, when Carey tells his interwoven stories, is to make each narrative more interesting than the other. Here he scores admirably: the reader is rudely torn away from one engrossing narrative but within a few lines in totally rapt in the alternating story.
Catherine's story is heartbreaking. Unable to publicly grieve the loss of her lover, the curator of the Swinburne Museum (presumably a V&A Museum lookalike) sends her off to a backroom to unpack tea chests containing a special project. As she begins to unpack, she discovers Henry Brandling's notebooks and various mechanical parts that need cleaning and re-assembling - presumably the duck. The restoration is absorbing, described in great detail but always in an accessible way, but the real joy is in the secondary characters. The curator, Eric Croft, is a Delphic figure - he knows about Catherine's affair; he has all sorts of hidden agenda which allows him to drip feed knowledge into conversations. He plays games with people, but gives the impression of being a benign force. Then there is Amanda, a young apprentice conservator set to work alongside Catherine - perhaps to keep an eye on her. There are other great cameos - particularly from Matthew's grown up children who fail to reassure Catherine that she didn't take their father away from them. Catherine is flaky, upset and emotional. As she delves into Henry Brandling's notebooks she forms a bond with him; she believes she has a special insight and is bewildered when others seem to understand more than her based on less information. She is truly adrift in a vodka haze.
Then there is Henry Brandling's story. The notebooks show he journeyed off to Germany where his brother had assured him that all but the peasants spoke perfect English - only to discover that everyone he met was a peasant. Even in Karlsruhe. He wanders the streets with plans for a clockwork duck which would move, eat, lay eggs and even defecate - and a purse full of money. Just as Catherine failed to understand her surroundings, Henry is similarly lost with no sense of situational awareness and no German. He is therefore easy prey for Herr Sumper, a rather intimidating clock maker who does, at least, speak fluent English. We fear for Henry.
There is a real sense of fun in watching Henry's ideas and observations that he recorded on the page becoming real under a century of grime in the tea chests. But this makes one wonder about the many stories of ancient riddles being set and solved many decades later by the persevering sleuth. In reality, the little puzzles, gestures and such like will die with those who made them. Would anyone really preserve Brandling's notebooks, read them in detail, seek verification of his arcane observations? Would anyone pay close enough attention to take joy in finding Sumper's receipt for the glass rods? Perhaps we like to read about these puzzles in the hope that one day people will take the time and trouble to examine our lives and relics in such detail.
The Chemistry of Tears is not the most original work. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Benjamin Markovits's excellent Syme Papers which also features a modern scholar unearthing details of a collaboration between a crackpot inventor and his (German) financial backer. However, it never feels as though Peter Carey is striving for originality - he is simply telling a good story very well. The voices positively sing. The detailing is exquisite - every bit the equal of the silver-smithing of the Black Forest. The contrast between 2010 and 1858 works well - the links are subtle when it would have been too easy to make them heavy handed. Whilst there are similarities in Catherine's grief and Henry's loss of a daughter, the two situations have such a different feel, with 2010 feeling mundane and 1858 feeling wildly surreal. The two voices are so different too; Catherine's whining contrasting with Henry's unfounded optimism. But most of all, there is the lop-sided nature of the relationship which enables Catherine to know Henry whilst Henry can never know anything of Catherine. There is really a great deal going on under the surface.
If there is one nagging doubt, it is that the ending comes rather suddenly. It's almost as though there was a missing third of the book which failed to survive the editing process. It's not a big thing and it makes the novel feel quite tight - almost parsimonious.
The final pages cry out for a major revelation and it's isn't quite clear whether Peter Carey has given us one or not. What a tease he is!
on 23 May 2012
I saw a positive review of this book on Newsnight and decided it was worth a read. I was wrong. The dual narrative of the 'conservator' mourning her lover who is given the task of restoring this mechanical wonder and that of Henry Fielding, the original 19th century patron searching for the mechanical miracle cure for his sickly son started out ok but I just couldn't care about the conservator.
The more interesting part of the narrative was indeed Henry making his way to a far-flung corner of present-day Germany to find someone who could build him this mechanical wonder but the present-day narrative just fell flat. I found myself not really caring what was happening to Catherine (the conservator) and her bereavement over her colleague/lover. Too much wallowing in self-pity and drink. Also, I work in a national museum and I can safely say, curators/conservators just wouldn't be so selfish and self-centred when it comes to precious items. Taking anything out of a museum unauthorised, would just not happen so I just didn't believe she could get away with that kind of thing.
Overall, the story, which is the key thing for me, just didn't work. It may be well written and technically brilliant or whatever else Peter Carey is supposed to be but in essence, this book, this narrative - just didn't have that chemistry that makes good storytelling a joy to become immersed in. I have to disagree with Andrew Motion on the back cover when he compares Peter Carey to Charles Dickens. Not in a million years! For me anyway.
on 26 April 2013
The Chemistry of Tears tells the stories of Henry Brandling, who in the mid 1850s commissions the manufacture of a mechanical duck for his chronically ill son and unwittingly becomes embroiled in the madness of its creator's universe,and Catherine Gehrig ,a modern day horologist who is tasked with repairing the 'duck' following the sudden death of her married lover. The novel is an exploration of grief and the forces which drive us throughout our lives. In Henry's case, it is the prospect that his son will not live long enough to see the automaton combined with his presence in a foreign land, the workings of which he is unable, and apparently unwilling, to understand. Catherine meanwhile is in complete thrall to her grief and becomes engrossed in reading about Henry's experiences through notebooks which are found alongside the mechanical duck. The characters share a similar disbelief at the apparent disintegration of their worlds. Henry cannot believe that the maker of the 'duck' does not seem to appreciate the urgency of his task; Catherine cannot fathom her world without the presence of her lover. Both are so absorbed in their own struggle as to be unable to acknowledge the events occurring around them. Throughout the novel is a thread of helplessness, manifested by the mechanic Sumper in the early narrative and by the character of Amanda in the modern day setting. Both of these individuals appear mentally unstable, but their instability is a response to a world of which others seem to be in total ignorance.
I looked forward to reading this so much but have been sadly disappointed. I was tempted by the idea of horology and the narratives being linked across time. However, I found a lot of it completely baffling, unless that was the point?? I suspect the novel is saying something about our perceptions of our lives being based on our understanding of the world we live in, often in complete ignorance of external forces, and for the principal characters in this novel, none of whom are remotely likeable, this view of the world is shaken by grief and loss. A variation on a theme of 'ignorance is bliss'. I really wish there had been more about the restoration of the automaton, which would at least have anchored the story a little. As it is I found the narratives difficult to follow and it was not a very satisfying read. I have enjoyed Carey's work before, particularly Theft: A Love Story, but this one was a bit disappointing.
Employed as a conservator at a London museum with a world-famous collection of clocks and wind-up machines, blue-stocking Catherine is grief-stricken over the death of her work colleague and not-so-secret lover Matthew. Her manipulative line manager Eric tries to distract her with the task of reassembling what seems to be a mechanical duck, commissioned in the 1850s by the wealthy (when he is allowed access to the family money) Henry Brandling, who is convinced the "automaton" will aid the recovery of his sickly son. Catherine becomes totally absorbed in the handwritten journals kept by the eccentric Henry on his lengthy trip to Germany to obtain the duck.
The "Catherine chapters" held my attention from the outset. I liked the acerbic take on Barbara Pym "voice", and the very convincing and often moving portrayal of how Catherine is devastated by loss which Carey manages to convey alongside some very entertaining scenes.
The Henry chapters were a different matter. I accept that he may be bordering on insane, and encounters some even nuttier people, in particular the automaton-maker Sumper with his for me tedious accounts of the perhaps even more eccentric designer of such machines, Cruickshank. These chapters have a dreamlike quality, verging at times on nightmare, and Henry's account is often fragmented and lacking in context.
I would have been totally at sea without Google to explain the Victorian obsession with automata, and the various references to smoking monkeys and Vaucanson's "Digesting Duck" plus the Silver Swan on view at Bowes Museum, all of which clearly inspired this novel.
I think Carey is exploring the incongruity, for atheists and rationalists, of how grief is expressed through the chemical reactions of, say, shedding tears, while a cleverly made robotic machine may arouse fear and confusion with "its uncanny lifelike movements". An added twist is how machines, especially the combustion engine, have transformed our lives but may lead to our destruction by pollution - including this aspect as well may be over-ambitious.
Only the relative shortness of this book, Carey's status as a twice Man Booker Prize Winner, and my admiration for his recent "Parrot and Olivier in America" gave me the incentive to persevere. I agree that the ending proves rather abrupt, plus for me it includes a couple of implausible twists which I found hard to take.
I can see why some reviewers have found the novel pretentious. I'm inclined to think that Carey simply lets his imagination roam free, his fame relieving him of any need to kowtow to agents or editors. He makes no concessions to readers, leaving us to extract the brilliant writing and sharp insights from the at times confusing morass.
It was only on reflection after finishing the book that I decided the choice of ending is quite effective, and that overall it is worth reading.
I could not help feeling, as I approached the end of this novel, that I really had not understood it - 'you will look at it but you will not see it' (in Latin) is a motto engraved on the beak of the swan (constructed in one narrative of the novel, reconstructed in the other) - and it rather summed up my feeling about both narratives and their interrelation.
Having said that, I got a surprising amount out of this book. Both narratives are unique and extraordinary. Catherine Gehrig in modern times behaves very badly right left and centre following the sudden death of the married man with whom she's had an affair of 13 years. We believe in her, and we also sympathise - quite an achievement. Henry Brandling, at whose wish the swan is first constructed, is extraordinary lacking in knowledge and self-knowledge. Yet once again, we believe in him and we sympathise.
Why do I feel I have failed to understand this? Simply, Henry decides towards the end of the novel that he is a fool, as he looks at the Latin motto. Catherine can't make head or tail of her relationship with her assistant curator, who maybe has deep insight, and is maybe deluded about the swan and its original makers. I found this impossible to work out....
This is very unlike the only other novel of Peter Carey I've read (The True History of the Kelly Gang). It certainly inclines me to read more.
Two very small points. The first is that Carey lists a lot of acknowledgements, but no-one has told him that we do not have a "Ministry for Arts' but a Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Also it seems very strange that Catherine can guess her lover's password at work to his email. It is simply her name - no capital letter, no numeral, no symbol - and presumably it has remained unchanged for 13 years. Perhaps there are workplaces with security like this - not that many public bodies, I would have thought, though...
on 10 May 2013
I didn't really see the point of this book, to be honest. It is a little postmodern in the sense that people from different places in history are connected to each other by a manuscript and a machine. It could be seen as an example of science in fiction due to the machine that acts as the story's maguffin. In short, it has a little bit of everything that I have encountered multiple times in contemporary fiction, but sadly does not seem to do anything original. Maybe I'm being harsh. I know a lot of people like and respect Carey's fiction, but it just wasn't this reviewer's cup of tea.
on 11 June 2012
Peter Carey's a wonderful author! I loved "True History of The Kelly Gang" and "Theft, a Love Story"! But this one's even worse than "Parrott and Olivier in America"! As with that, there are 2 voices narrating, and here there are 2 eras portrayed. Altogether 2 tricksy! The modern narrator's immediacy is appealing, and her grief is all too believable. The other narrator's a fusty old bloke who's being made a fool of by everyone he knows, and is a bore to boot.. I lost interest in the "automaton" that they have in common, failed to take wing for me. And it grinds to an inconclusive ending with the cranking of gears, and a sigh of relief from me. Write another one quick, and make if it funny!
on 12 September 2014
My personal reaction to the main characters is extremely sympathetic. All are driven by loss of a person they love with the most intense passion. In the case of Henry it concerns the over-arching love for his dying son. With Catherine it is the love of her life who dies suddenly of a heart-attack. Sumper idolises and protects the dying inventor Cruickshank, who has lost his entire family at sea to erroneous charts and tables. This is a love story which underpins the main narrative of historical events.
The questions the book poses are, however, not about a typical love story. In the 19th century people created the most extraordinary works of art and science under circumstances we can hardly imagine. We cannot comprehend what this was like. We see a name, date, object, a sequence of events, and the reality is hidden. Specifically the focus lands on an automaton, a mechanism built by experts to imitate something living and to apply meaning or interpretation to it. Carey lets us glimpse the sacrifice, the desperate determination, the endurance and skill faced against an antagonistic and at best indifferent society. Economic need gnaws away at the grand designs and investigations of the great minds of the era. The almost insufferable losses fuel the desire of these people to work, to search for understanding and to, finally, grasp something from it, inevitably incomplete.
This is my incomplete understanding of this novel which nailed my attention and will continue to intrigue me for some time. It's challenging. Both main characters are constantly coming to conclusions which are then proved wrong. All assumptions are challenged. Carey is masterful at creating a thin line between illusion and verifiable fact. What we want to believe, what we conceive as possible, all the myriad motivations which colour our perception. And in the end it is the senses, the emotions and ultimately, love that is the greatest gift to us, that we still fail to comprehend.
on 11 May 2014
There is a certain quality of story telling that comes to the fore when reading books by award-winning writers. 'The Chemistry of Tears' is like this. It starts with a death, a broken heart, and soul-destroying grief. Indeed, by the end of the first chapter, the reader will be rather fond of the adulteress called Catherine who made the terrible error in judgement of falling in live with a married man.
Chapter two is a whole new story. Literally. In it, we learn of a magical robotic duck. Germany, circa 1854. A well-to-do Englishman travels to this country with plans for said automata but is met with a series of metaphorical brick walls. There is an obvious link to both plot lines here, and of course how they develop into a classic story of live, life, loss and grief will be up to the reader to discover. But just like life itself, the joy is in the journey, not the destination. Mr Carey's writing skills and story telling abilities are known and loved worldwide. Obviously the further you read into this book the more it makes sense and it is not long before the fabled penny drops and even the meaning of the title is clear. By then of course, you are so far hooked line and sinker into the joys of this tale that you will never want the story to end.
This book is a classic. It is a love story of course, but it's structure is a thing of beauty. Just like the automata the characters found herein cherish so much, you too, can study, open and analyses this book in the same fashion. You won't have trouble closing the book when you finish it, but you will have trouble clearing your mind, and your memories of their warmth and companionship.
An easy and well deserved full marks from me.
on 8 September 2013
It's a new multi-layered and complex novel from the two-times Booker winner.
London, 2010. The lover and a colleague of Catherine Gehrig, conservator at the Swinburne museum, dies of a heart attack. They were lovers for 13 years. No one knew about their relationship, except just another museum employee, Eric Croft, a researcher, historian and master of all that is ticking and tacking, as well as the chief of Catherine. Croft calms Catherine, gives her sick leave so the woman would be able to grieve in solitude, because she even can not appear at the funeral. Catherine worries that her private emails to the deceased lover can be viewed by outsiders. The server with the letters is not yet available, and Catherine is waiting for the moment when she will be able to remove them. Croft also gives Catherine a special assignment - to try to restore the mechanical creation of the middle of the XIX century. Next to the parts of the mechanism Catherine finds 11 handwritten notebooks belonging to someone who was responsible for the creation of a strange automation for over a century ago. Without waiting for an official scanning of notebooks, Catherine begins to read them one by one, gradually learning about the mechanism and the man who took notes. Catherine begins to read the diaries and get drunk every day until she loses consciousness, to forget about the death of her lover. Thus, chapters are alternating, on behalf of Catherine, on behalf of Henry, the author of notes, and the interlude between them, on behalf of both characters.
This multi-layered story is like a mechanical swan, it is hard to piece together, but admirable, being already done. The novel attracts because of mystical and fantastic elements. Mechanical swan, found a half-century before, mysterious notebooks, a crazy inventor and a crazy student of the inventor, all of these elements give us a reason to call "The Chemistry of Tears" a steampunk novel. X-rays, which Catherine was so afraid to do, were able to show the existence of the soul in an automated swan, the author gives an allusion. Amanda, who also has read the manuscript, is guessing that the old mechanism was a prototype for car engine. Peter Carey here raises the question whether all human beings have a soul, and why we believe that an automation doesn't? This question remains open. But for Sumper, for example, everything is clear: his countrymen, ignorant people, who are interested in nothing, they have no soul, while his creation is more than a duck on wheels.
Two main characters, Catherine and Henry, resonate well, each of whom suffered the loss (though we did not know whether Henry had a duck in time and saved his son from the disease). They are nervous people, but not desperate, just ultimately lonely. Reading Henry's notes in the place where he writes that love to a child is stronger than love to a person of the opposite sex, Catherine throws his notebook with anger. She believes that it is impossible to compare both types of love. The power of love depends on how many feelings people puts in it. Carey skillfully describes the condition of a person who lost a loved one. Carey is not sentimental, not trying to knock away a tear, does not cut his prose into small pieces-sentences, but his melodic and captivating prose conveys all the emotions.
In the story there are several dead-end lines that are puzzling. Why did Croft introduce Amanda and Catherine's lover's son? There is also unclear moment with Croft trying to flirt with Catherine. He just does not want to take the place of Catherine's lover, but his desire to protect Catherine, even after her recovering after the death of Matthew, is difficult to explain. Closer to the finale, they argue, but then, as if nothing had happened, in the restaurant celebrate presentation, and Croft even kisses Catherine on the cheek.
Carey has definitely written a captivating story of grief, hope, despair and loss.