The Chemistry of Tears Paperback – 7 Mar 2013
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'Carey is a wily and supremely confident storyteller on a grand scale' --The Times
'A new Peter Carey novel is cause for joy' --Guardian
'Like most of Carey's work, the novel is extraordinarily allusive and joyously inventive' --Daily Telegraph
'Alive with the vivid evocation of place and period that is always Carey's forte.' --Sunday Times
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey - the twice Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang - is the story of an automaton, a man and a woman who can never meet, and a secret love story . . .See all Product description
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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!
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.
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...
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