The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey review

by Paula Morris / 28 April, 2012
In his novel about characters centuries apart, Peter Carey explores the intersections of art, science and madness.
Catherine Gehrig, spiky and imperious, is a horologist, an expert on the inner workings of clocks. Her life ticks between a few key, quiet settings in Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears: a garden flat in south London; an austere conservator’s studio at the Swinburne Museum, “one of London’s almost-secret treasure houses”; and the bolt-hole in Suffolk where she and married colleague Matthew conduct a  long-term affair.

When Matthew drops dead on the tube, Catherine’s closed world cracks open. Exiled by her all-knowing boss, Eric Croft, to the museum’s soulless new annexe, Catherine is given a gargantuan and – Croft hopes – distracting task, luring her from the unseemly hysteria of grief with a suitably soulless object: a large and elaborate mid-19th-century automaton that requires painstaking reassembly.

“Neither Matthew nor I had time for souls,” Catherine reflects, anticipating the “uncanny lifelike movements” of an automaton. “That we were intricate chemical machines never diminished our sense of wonder, our reverence for Vermeer and for Monet, our floating bodies in the salty water, our evanescent joy before the dying of the light.” But now, she thinks, “the light was gone”. Matthew’s death has left her with no future, a deranged present, and a lost past.

Increasingly intrigued by the intricate 3D puzzle emerging from dusty tea chests, Catherine soon fi nds herself piecing together more than just the object itself. She smuggles home a stash of notebooks recording the 1854 journey of one Henry Brandling into the Black Forest, in search of a master cuckoo-clock maker. Henry – unhappily married, like Matthew, and tormented by fear that his sickly young son is dying – has commissioned a large mechanical duck.

Like many of Carey’s narrative sparks, this automaton is based on a real-life model, designed by the 18th-century inventor Jacques de Vaucanson; the visionary British inventor Charles Babbage also casts a long shadow over the novel.

The narrative moves between Henry’s increasingly embattled, expensive quest in Germany and Catherine’s struggle to go through the motions in her own overlooked life. She’s spied on by her obsessive, unwanted assistant, Amanda Snyde, and the novel also has much to say about the way man-made machines intrude on and threaten contemporary lives, from the surveillance of CCTV, to the illusory privacy of email, to the physical devastation wrought by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Catherine and Henry are rational people unhinged by passion and the fear of loss; both, Catherine speculates, are engaged in “building some mad monument to grief”.

Catherine’s not only a horologist by profession; her father and (German) grandfather were clockmakers, and Henry’s journals draw her back into a fevered version of her own history. A beleaguered Henry tangles with Artaud, a fairy-tale collector, and the sinister genius Herr Sumper, while Catherine herself is almost a fairytale character, expected to spin straw into gold. The automaton that is Henry’s folly of a legacy, more ambitious a creation than Vaucanson’s scheme, will be a major attraction for the Swinburne’s donors and visitors. Failure to bring the automaton to life will have consequences – for Henry in his day, and Catherine in hers.

That a novel exploring the intersections of art, science and madness is more intellectually than emotionally engaging isn’t entirely surprising, and The Chemistry of Tears sometimes seems to be making points and displaying its research more enthusiastically than telling a story. But if it lacks the verve, humour and energy of many of Carey’s previous novels, it shares much that’s compelling with his best fiction, including a tremendous intellectual curiosity, historical mysteries and a plot that reads both as an adventure story and an elaborate puzzle in its own right.

THE CHEMISTRY OF TEARS, by Peter Carey (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, $50).

Paula Morris is a New Zealand writer living in Scotland. Her novel Rangatira was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2011.
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