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3.7 out of 5 stars
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3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 24 July 2016
I am a huge fan of Peter Carey. Enjoyed but not quite as much as others.
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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 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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 August 2012
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.
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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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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 20 June 2012
It's easy to concentrate on the great creative power of love. But all that is great comes at a price. So it can't be any other way with love. One finds that there is an enormous collateral to love, to loving, for in order to feel the real, unparallelled love one has to have it attached directly to the spine, the heart and the soul. This means that love as much as it is a creative force must also be as a grand destructive force, capable of the greatest harm, the shattering of hearts and souls.

Love is also a delicate and particularly evanescent phenomenon, and it requires a steady pen to make a decent literary attempt at explicating it. Perhaps the feeling of love is not as hard to describe in literature as its former companion (before annus mirabilis, as Philip Larkin would have us remember) - sex, which can be easily seen in all writing that uses lovemaking, inevitably ending up rather peculiar and awkward. It may even be harder to write of love in novels than it is in poems, as poems have the power to stop all flows and concentrate on the feeling itself with great precision and patience. But in novels it requires great literary skill to capture love in a convincing and honest manner. Thankfully Peter Carey is one of the best contemporary writers to which his numerous literary prizes can attest, lead by two Booker prizes (for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001).

A reader can therefore expect a double delight from The Chemistry of Tears, both in the language and in the story. What that reader may not expect however is that the story itself will provide double the customary enjoyment. Not only do we get a story of a woman - Catherine Gehrig, a conservator at London's Swinburne Museum - who's grieving her late lover, whose unexpected death is announced on the first page; but also a story of a man from earlier time (Henry), losing, but not yet having lost, his family (in particular his son who is in feeble health), yet fighting to gain happiness nonetheless (the fight, the journey which is central to it joins the two characters if only in an unidirectional way). Together they create a tale of love, loss, passion and desperation.

The introduction of a parallel story read by and affecting the main character creates a strong bond between the reader and Catherine, the aforementioned horologist, allowing the reader to identify with the second main character (Henry) at the same time as she does, in a rare occurrence of reading fiction together with another human being, if only imaginary. The sharing of the numinous process of taking in fictional stories creates a strong bond between the reader, his literary companion and the hero of the story read together as well. The chapters marked Catherine & Henry are the most enjoyble in The Chemistry of Tears for this specific reason. The process makes Catherine become very close to the reader and to the story, or both stories. The grip the novel has can be attributed not just to the above, and to the elements of mystery in Henry's story, but to more literary qualities as well.

Peter Carey's English does not surprise, but it doesn't need to in order to please. Mr. Carey isn't on the same level as Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie when the use English is concerned, the language itself would not make his fiction worth reading, as it often does for the other two writers. But his language is very good nonetheless, showing brilliant understanding of rhythm, and striking with piercing insightfulness ("I thought, she has such a lovely perfect skin. She has no idea she is going to die."). The language of the novel makes the great story pleasantly dressed, adding to the elegant enjoyment of reading The Chemistry of Tears.

As in life, in love, not everything is black or white. There is a grey area tainting the above-presented snow-white side of the novel. Mr. Carey started the novel on a strong note, the destruction of something of utmost importance to the main character, and ended perhaps on a similarly high pitch, that is with the creation of something important for her, for Henry (joining them together in a stronger way) and a few more characters. But the two are somewhat disjoined. The story seems to be closed by this creation, but the two connected stories get lost somewhere on the final pages and there is a feeling that they are left unfinished, that there are things untold, while the final pages are hijacked by the precise swan being created as a timely metaphor. Therefore the reader is left unsatiated, and disappointingly so.

Despite Mr. Carey's apparent loss of the thread of the story before it was fully unravelled in front of the reader the novel is a strong literary effort and a magnificent journey of love, death, hate, life and beauty. All this in an addictive setting, filled with emotions and mystery. Covered in Carey's Dickensian prose it is a recipe for a very good novel indeed, and this is also my verdict.
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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.

BFN Greggorio!
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on 13 July 2012
THE CHEMISTRY OF TEARS begins with the mercurial Catherine Gehrig, a conservator in the horology department at a museum in London, who has just learned that her longtime paramour has suddenly died. This death engulfs Catherine in grief and rage, which is noticed by Eric Croft, her benevolent boss who truly values the difficult Catherine's excellence and talents. As a result, he gives her a special project, the assemblage of an intricate and elegant automaton dating from the mid-nineteenth century, which exists in crates in the museum's annex. There, Eric hopes the misbehaving and hysterical Catherine, who is a serious tippler, will grieve without being noticed, as well as regain her self-control.

Catherine starts to explore these crates and discovers 11 notebooks. These were written by Henry Brandling, the Englishman who financed the production of the automaton. The tormented Brandling, who is obsessed with the poor health of his young son, believes extravagant toys such as the automaton have the power to revitalize his boy. In his notebooks, Brandling recounts the story of the automaton and the process of its creation, which, not unlike the experience of Catherine 150 years later, helps him cope with death.

In telling the connected stories of Catherine and Henry, the lyrical Peter Carey explores such issues as grief, desperation, inspiration, and artistic genius and appreciation, as well as the healing power of excellence and work. Similar to other Carey novels (I've read "Parrot and Olivier in America", "His Illegal Self", "Theft", "My Life as a Fake", "True History of the Kelly Gang", and "Jack Maggs), the prose in TCoT absolutely flies along, with Carey evoking and then holding this reader's interest from the first sentence, which is: "Dead, and no one told me."

Highly recommended.
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