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!