The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Peter Carey is one of those “A list” authors who provoke a lot of debate. He is certainly prolific: 12 novels (with a new one every two or three years, it seems), a couple of short story collections, four non-fiction works and two screen plays. He sells well and wins prizes: two Bookers (for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001), a couple more shortlisted titles and three Miles Franklin Awards in Australia (although the last of those was Jack Maggs in 1998). He’s still presented as an “Australian” author, although he has lived in New York for the last twenty years — that might explain the lack of recent Miles Franklin recognition.

It is also a challenge to put a label to his fiction. “Historical” probably comes closer than anything else, although he is peripatetic both in time and geography — the Kelly Gang is obviously Australian, Parrot and Olivier in America is equally obviously American (and with a far different tone). And my personal favorite of his novels, Theft: A Love Story, is an exploration of art world corruption that involves no historical aspect at all.

So it is little wonder that his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, both invites comparisons to his backlist while defying any attempt to frame a tidy description of it. One narrative thread is set in 2010 London, featuring Catherine Gehrig, a conservator at the Swinburne Museum. A second involves her immersion in eleven diaries connected with her latest project, the restoration of a nineteenth century automaton, commissioned by an Englishman but built in Germany. And the third goes back to the construction of the automaton itself and introduces a strange cast of mystical characters in the depths of the Black Forest.

That first thread is set moving by the death of one of Catherine’s superiors, the Head Curator of Metals at Swinburne — he had also been her lover for 13 years. It was a secret affair, but known to Eric “Crafty” Crofty, the Head Curator of Horology (“the master of all that ticked and tocked”). Clocks are Catherine’s expertise and “Crafty” figures that a major clock-like project, restoring a nineteenth century automaton that has been bequeathed to the museum (commissioned as a duck, but actually a swan — one that “eats”, “digests” and “expels” the artificial fish from the artificial pond that is part of the mechanism), would be a suitable and compelling distraction for her grief. Here’s the section as he introduces his proposal:

“Good.” He beamed and the creases around his mouth gave him a rather catlike appearance. He turned off the extractor fan and suddenly I could smell his aftershave. “First we’ll get you sick leave. We’ll get through this together — I’ve got something for you to sort out,” he said. “A really lovely object.” That’s how people talk at Swinburne. They say object instead of clock.

I thought, he is exiling me, burying me. The Annexe [which will be home to the project] was situated behind Olympia where my grief might be as private as my love.

At the start, the “project” consists of a number of packed tea chests, filled with protective old newspapers, tobacco tins containing small elements of the automaton and much larger pieces. It is worth providing an extended quote to indicate the flavor that will dominate this narrative thread:

I tipped the contents into a metal tray. That they were small brass screws would be obvious to anybody. The horologist’s eye saw more — for instance, most of them had been made before 1841. The later screws, about two hundred of them, had a Standard Whitworth thread with a set angle of 55 degrees. Could I really see those 55 degrees? Of yes, even with tears in my eyes. I had learned to do that when I was ten years old, sitting beside my grandfather at his bench in Clerkenwell.

So I immediately knew this “object” had been made in the middle of the nineteenth century when Whitworth thread became the official standard but many clockmakers continued to turn their own screws. These different types of threads told me that Crofty’s “object” was the product of many workshops. Part of the restoration would involve matching holes and screws and this might sound maddening but it was exactly what I liked about clockmaking as I had learned it from my grandfather Gehrig — the complete and utter peace of it.

That is impressive detail concerning something that I know nothing about — a characteristic that will become a constant in this thread. The link between the original construction of the object and its present restoration comes in the form of 11 handwritten exercise books that Catherine discovers in one of the tea chests, written by Henry Brandling, the Englishman who commissioned the object and went to Germany to both observe and document its creation.

Brandling has a sickly son (and has already lost his firstborn) and he is committed to seeing Percy through a painful and difficult hydrotherapy treatment. Somewhat conveniently, he finds a role for himself:

Then, quite by accident, I came across the plans. They had been already a century old when they were published by the London Illustrated News but I immediately saw their possibility and I had one of my brother’s draughtsmen draw them afresh and by the time he was finished with the transverse sections and so on, it might have been part of the offering plan for the new Brandling railway.

When my little fellow saw the design for M. Vaucanson’s ingenious duck, a great shout — huzza — went up from him. It was a tonic to see the colour in his cheeks, the life brimming in his eyes where I observed the force of what Dr. Kneipp calls “magnetic agitation” which is a highly elevated form of curiosity or desire.

I thought, dear Lord, we have turned the corner.

Henry’s trip to the Black Forest to arrange construction of the object introduces a whole new set of characters — an artisan who simply seems too big and clumsy for such detailed work, a child genius, a rather predictable hag and a fairy tale teller among them. Carey’s reference to the Brothers Grimm is oblique, but the whole thread reads like it was originally collected by that pair — and this is not one of the sanitized versions of their tales.

For this reader, all of this produced a confusing and often frustrating novel. Carey is a more than competent wordsmith and it is a good thing or the experience would have been worse. Each of the three narrative streams not only involves its own set of characters, it also carries its own “intrigue” which requires careful attention from the reader. As the author moved between the three, I found myself continually needing to refresh myself on what had happened before — which meant, of course, that I kept overlooking the highly significant details of what was happening now (requiring even more refreshing later on).

Catherine became an interesting character and the present day third of the novel was the most satisfying for me — indeed, I would have liked more from this aspect of the story. The diaries and her reaction to them did help fuel this part of the book. Alas, the Black Forest thread just didn’t yield significant return for the attention that it required.

The result of all this was a reaction remarkably similar to the one I had to Carey’s last novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, even though the two books have almost nothing in common. In both, I was very impressed along the way with how much care Carey had put into the detail of the historical aspect of his novel — I was equally frustrated by how little reward I found myself getting for paying attention to all that detail. For me, less would have meant much more.

A final critical qualification on my own opinion. Those who liked Parrot and Olivier (and it was Booker shortlisted, so many did) cited that attention to detail as one of the most positive aspects of the book — they may well find that the aspects of The Chemistry of Tears that frustrated me most are exactly what makes it a good book for them.

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7 Responses to “The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    A friend just read this and was ultimately disappointed in it, so you are not alone.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I’ve read opinions on other forums which also found it wanting. On the other hand, apparently a panel on the BBC was predicting it would be the Booker winner. As I said at the start, Carey is an author who tends to attract diverse opinions.

  3. David Says:

    This was only my second Carey (after ‘His Illegal Self’) and though I preferred this one I’m beginning to think he just isn’t for me. There was plenty about this book that I admired and I thought he explored his central ideas very thoroughly, to the extent that I’m sure there were things I missed, but like his automaton I ultimately found the whole thing very cold and mechanical. That BBC Review Show panel commented on how moving they found Catherine’s grief, which I thought surprising as I found I had so little connection with her or any of the characters that I’d concluded it must have been Carey’s intention to portray his humans as nothing more than complex machines, but clearly I was wrong.
    Technically I thought the novel was very good and it provided plenty to think about but I just prefer novels with a bit more heart.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Carey is a writer who somehow never tempts me. In a way that’s a shame, as plainly others find much there to reward them, but given how many people I want to read that I already don’t have time for I’d need strong persuading to overcome that instinctive indifference.

    Had you loved it I might have looked further, as it is I’ll just have to thank you for on this occasion not adding to my already overhigh TBR pile.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I was wondering as I read the novel whether Carey isn’t one of those authors who gets a far more positive response from other writers (like those who appear on radio panels) than from readers. He is technically very impressive, e.g. the three different types of voices he uses here, which tends to be noticed more by people who write than by the ordinary reader. Rather like watching the performance of a particularly complex minor piano concerto — the pianist may well be impressive (to other pianists) but the concerto is still not very good.

    Like you I found the experience rather distant and cold (your observation about portraying his characters as versions of automatons hadn’t occured to me — it does have value). As for Catherine’s “grief”, I found it more a case of plot convenience rather than emotional engagement. I did appreciate her as a character, but far more from her conservation/reconstruction challenges (and the politics of relating to the people in the museum around here) than from the rather empty portrayal of her past affair.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Your comment arrived while I was writing my response to David — had it arrived sooner I would have just included your name with his at the start, since I think it speaks to your concerns. I know a fair bit about your reading tastes and I think Carey is a writer who doesn’t really speak to any of them. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a good writer for some, just one that doesn’t fit with your interests.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin. I depart from my tastes given strong cause, as with both you and Trevor recommending Maile Meloy for example which isn’t my usual sort of thing, but it does take strong cause.

    On which note I should look at Montana 1948 again. A third blogger I trust (Emma, of bookaroundthecorner) has now recommended that one.

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