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3.7 out of 5 stars
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3.7 out of 5 stars
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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!
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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.
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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.
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on 27 March 2012
In this short gripping novel Peter Carey constructs a delightful conspiratorial confection which has pleasing hints of Thomas Pynchon and Lawrence Norfolk. It is the second significant novel this year in which the narrator is the grandson of a London clockmaker: but apart from that the approach is very different to Nick Harkaway in Angelmaker.

Carey, as in Parrot and Olivier in America, has two narrators, but here one is contemporary and female. Her raw emotional state of bereavement, and the fraught relationships which she has with her colleagues, portray an edgy view of life behind the scenes at the imaginary museum of clockwork and automata. There is a wider background of environmental catastrophe and cultural fragmentation, and it becomes clear that her project is vital as the museum struggles to survive the financial difficulties posed by the current government.

The nineteenth century narrator is an equally vulnerable character, in a mould that will be familiar to readers of Carey's earlier novels. He is far from home, overseeing the commissioning of an animated duck, which will be magical, but will also hint at a future of computing and of motorisation, where three dimensional cams and "specially contrived axles and bevelled gears" will rule the day. Carey resolves his parallel plot with aplomb, but not without an appropriately tantalising hint of mystery and even conspiracy.
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on 27 March 2012
Another superb and very intriguing book from Peter Carey.

The emotional turmoil of the two characters, locked into personal struggles with love and loss, in two different centuries, is handled with great finesse. As always he finds connections and parallels between his two characters and much empathy as well as anger. He skillfully uses a structure, one he's used before, of two points of view that dovetail to tell the story. The narrative has an effortless forward motion.
You would not expect anything else from Carey who truly is, as Andrew Motion says on the back cover blurb, one of our greatest living writers (I paraphrase).

I love his prose style, clean and clear with quirky bits. Well worth buying, hard to put down and over too soon.
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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!
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on 31 July 2012
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...
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on 3 August 2012
I purchased this as we were reading at book club. From reading the blurb I thought I would really enjoy it. I really enjoyed half of it - the parts with Catherine in where interesting and well written - her grief was brilliantly portrayed and felt very real. However, interspaced with this was a very confusing story about Henry which didnt really make much sense and felt a bit interuptive.
Interesting book but I feel it could have been laid out much better.
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The Chemistry of Tears contains two intertwined narratives: one set in the present day in which Catherine Gehrig, a conservator at a small, quirky London museum attempts to reconstruct a nineteenth-century mechanical swan while coming to terms with the death of her lover and a second set in the mid-Victorian era detailing the original construction of the marvellous mechanical bird. Both strands, although vastly different in tone, deal with similar themes: what it means to be alive, what distinguishes us as emotional human beings (if anything) from the dazzlingly brilliant swan automaton, and how we come to terms (if we ever really do) with grief and the loss of a loved one.

As ever Peter Carey's prose is a joy to read. His twin narratives flow so beautifully and are so delicately balanced and poised that neither ever threatens to swallow the other. Each enhances its companion as they work their way towards a conclusion, both revealling themes which are then mirrored and paralled as the strands weave back and forth. Henry Brandling, the man who commissions the original construction of the swan (he originally asked for a duck but that proved to be beneath the skills of the genius/ madman who eventually builds the creature) does so because he wishes the bird to be an inspiring gift for his dangerously ill son. Catherine attempting to reconstruct the creature over one hundred years later feels Brandling's hopes, fears and frustrations on an intensely personal level knowing the depths to which despair and grief can plunge an individual. Working to recreate the beautiful machine she hopes Brandling, as she reads through his journals, will be spared the agony of loss and the sense of grief she herself feels after her lover's death.

If I had a criticism it would be that some of the philosophical connections made between what differentiates the brilliant, beautiful mechanical swan and the brilliant, beautiful collections of chemicals and electrical impulses (i.e. us flawed and dazzling humans) who created it remain slightly opaque. There is a sense of something mysterious and clever lurking behind a curtain which is never drawn back for the reader to see but then, in fairness to Carey, this may well be something that becomes much clearer on a re-read. To counter-balance this however the story is fascinating, emotionally involving and beautifully written. Also I loved the characters - from the damaged genius who makes the swan to the bitter and bewildered Henry Brandling and on to Catherine herself who is never quite likeable and yet all too human and understandable. One other character rather haunted me as well - Catherine's beautiful, brilliant and badly flawed assistant Amanda who may just hold the key to everything (the swan, the plot and the whole brilliant beautiful mess of what it means to be human). For me Amanda rather stole every scene in which she appeared and to my mind the book is all the better for it. Catherine makes for an unreliable and biased narrator and her reading of Amanda throws out several fascinating thoughts and possibilities as to who we can trust, and what this means for the conclusions we draw, as the plot evolves.

In conclusion this is a dazzlingly clever, readable, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. I loved the twin plots, I believed in the characters and I read on long into the night wanting to know what would happen next. It's a brilliant piece of storytelling and, several days after I reached the final pages, it haunts me still. Terrific.
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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.
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