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Peter Carey, The chemistry of tears (Review)

May 17, 2012
Peter Carey Chemistry of tears bookcover

Gorgeous bookcover (Courtesy: Penguin Group, Australia)

It may sound strange, but when I think of Peter Carey, I also often think of Margaret Atwood. Their works and concerns are very different, I know, but the thing is that both produce highly varied oeuvre. They take risks; they try new forms, voices and genres. This is not to say that I only like writers who do this – after all, I love Jane Austen – but I am always intrigued to pick up a Carey or an Atwood. Consequently, I was keen to read Carey’s latest, The chemistry of tears.

As a librarian-archivist who also worked with museum materials, I was engaged from the first chapter which introduces 40-something Catherine, one of the two protagonists. She’s an horologist and senior conservator in a museum, and the novel opens with her discovery that her (secret) married lover of 13 years, another museum employee, has died. She’s devastated. She also thinks their relationship has been a secret, but soon discovers that her boss, Eric Croft, knows about it. Aware of her grief, he allocates her to a project away from the main museum building. And, he provides her with an assistant, Courtauld graduate Amanda. Catherine has been a calm, rational creature but warns us that she is now “a whirring mad machine”. Hang onto that image. The date is April 2010. Hang onto that date.

The second protagonist is Henry Brandling, who is the author of the exercise books Catherine finds in the tea chests containing her project. This project is to reconstruct a Vaucanson style Digesting Duck which Henry commissioned for his consumptive son. Henry’s part of the story takes place in 1854.

The novel is narrated pretty much alternately in first and third person voices. The first person is Catherine relating her progress with her project, and with her pervasive grief, while Henry’s story is told in third person, based on Catherine’s reading of his exercise books. Henry’s is a pretty wild story that sees him travel from England to Karlsruhe, Germany, to find someone able to make the automaton and then on to Furtwangen to oversee its construction by watchmaker Sumper. Henry’s faith in himself and the somewhat enigmatic Sumper are sorely tested as the manufacture proceeds in a rather secretive and chaotic manner within a household that also includes the moody Frau Helga, her odd but clever son, Carl the Genius, and the silversmith-cum-fairytale-collector Arnaud.  Meanwhile, in 2010, Catherine’s progress is no less erratic, due partly to her own self-centred grief-stricken behaviour and partly to the not completely transparent actions of assistant Amanda.

There were times, I must say, when I wondered if Carey were pushing his plot too hard – when Catherine’s behaviour got just a little too irrational or paranoid, or when Sumper (if not Henry) became a little too obsessive – but these times were fleeting because he always managed to pull it back just as I thought he was going over the edge.

Carey uses a whole grab-bag of devices to tell this tale. I liked the obvious but not slavish parallels between grieving Catherine and her clever but a-little-too-independent assistant Amanda, and between worried father Henry and his rather independent watchmaker Sumper. These parallels encourage us to think more deeply about what is really going on in the two domains, to consider who is rational and who isn’t, or whether no-one is. Carey also uses humour and satire, some light foreshadowing, and effective imagery, in addition to the structure and voice I’ve already described. Looked at individually, none of these is particularly innovative, but in concert they result in something rather fresh and, more than that, something that is entertaining while also challenging the intellect.

If you know Carey, though, you will know that this novel is about more than two people resolving their respective griefs. Remember my instructions in the second paragraph to hang onto an image and a date? They are clues to the bigger themes of the novel. The date, April 2010, is the date of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a serious and distressing issue for Amanda. And what caused the oil spill? Why, a big machine of course. Carey’s theme, however, is a little more complex than simply demonstrating the negative effects of industrialisation, that triumph of the 19th century, on our lives today. Enter the automaton story-line …

Automata, you’ll be aware, represent scientists’ attempts to imitate life but, as Henry recognises early in his quest, they are “clever” but “soul-less” creatures. Catherine also reflects on automata in her first chapter:

But really, truly, anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and what cannot be born.

The plot – well, the theme – thickens, because Henry and Catherine’s automata, the duck, isn’t quite what it appears to be. And here, Carey cheekily introduces and twists the ugly duckling story because, as we learn early in the novel, the duck is in fact a swan – and a swan, in reality and myth if not in fairytale, is something both “beautiful and pitiless”. Carey uses it to suggest that science may be taken too far … and to represent …

The other big theme of science versus belief, the paradox of scientific and industrial endeavour towards perfection versus the chaos of humanity. As Eric says to Catherine late in the novel:

Do you know, I find the notion that mysteries must be solved to be very problematic. [...] Why do we always wish to remove ambiguity?

Is this Carey confronting us head on with our own paradoxes? With the fact that we are happy with, want even, our modern culture’s tendency to produce open endings, to recognise that not all can be neatly explained, while at the same time expecting science to push and push and push for answers. Accepting mysterium tremendum, suggests Carey, is the stuff of life.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers also liked this novel.

Peter Carey
The chemistry of tears
Camberwell: Hamish Hamilton, 2012
268pp
ISBN: 9781926428154

(Review copy courtesy Penguin Group, Australia)

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2012 5:56 pm

    I love this review, Sue, it reminds me of the pleasure of reading this novel!

    • May 17, 2012 6:00 pm

      Thanks Lisa … that was quick! It was a fun read wasn’t it even if Catherine’s behaviour was so horribly unprofessional. I also loved Carey’s dig at the requirement for cultural institutions to make money, the way the swan was going to be “a crowd-pleaser” to raise the institutions profile and funding. Fun book.

      • May 17, 2012 6:06 pm

        Oh, I liked Catherine. All those years of being discreet had to find an outlet in the end!

        • May 17, 2012 6:41 pm

          LOL, I did too …Her realisation that she had no friends was poignant. Women who end up in these situations often find that I think.

          I think the other thing worth exploring is the unreliable narrator issue. How much were her suspicions of Amanda justified and how much her own paranoia. So much to discuss in this book.

  2. Christina Houen permalink
    May 17, 2012 6:15 pm

    This is a very well-constructed, well written review. You saw the best of this novel, I saw the worst, and couldn’t get it into it at all, would have thrown it across the room if I hadn’t agreed to review it. I’ve since taken it to the 2nd hand book shop, in search of a more tolerant reader.

    In long retrospect, many weeks after I read this forgettable book, I think it was far-fetched in the extreme, the sub plot of Henry’s labours with the problematical mechanical duck/swan and the supporting cast barely believable and quite un-engaging, and the whole thing a fevered dream of a writer who is addicted to writing on the edge.Too clever to be readable. I preferred reading your review!

    • May 17, 2012 6:47 pm

      Well thanks for that at least, Christina. It was pretty far-fetched and, as I was thinking about this review that took me longer to write than most, I considered talking about suspension of disbelief. I can see why people may not like it … you do have to be prepared to go with the flow, but (obviously) I loved the way he put all his ideas together in a wild sort of way.

      • Christina Houen permalink
        May 17, 2012 7:25 pm

        I am very happy to suspend disbelief, as long as I can engage with, empathise with, the characters. I couldn’t in this novel, except in a very detached way with Catherine.

        • May 17, 2012 7:38 pm

          Oh yes, Christina … I hope you didn’t think I meant you couldn’t. I meant more that this is a book where you really do have to, as against some that are more realistic, and that you therefore need to be in the flow where you can. I guess for me, the whole set up of a conservator in a museum intrigued me from the start so I “decided” I”d go with it! I’ve checked other reviews since writing this and discovered that there are others who find they can’t engage with this book. (BTW When I click on your name I get a message that your site is Private? I think your name is not linking to you main book review site? Or, am I getting confused?)

        • Christina Houen permalink
          May 17, 2012 8:28 pm

          Re my name, that’s because my original blog is asleep, as I’m not posting to it, but I do have another blog, for book reviews, memoryandyou.wordpress.com. I’ll have to try and sort it out with WordPress, so that people who want to check me out when I link to or comment on their blogs don’t get bounced off. In other words, so that my name links to my active site, not the dormant one. Thanks for letting me know.

        • May 17, 2012 10:15 pm

          Great Christina … I had a feeling you had another one and I think I get emails when you post to it, so it’s use the link on your name when you post that is probably the issue. You can change it when you comment but it may not stick as the default. Anyhow, it would be good for you to have the link work wouldn’t it?

        • May 17, 2012 10:21 pm

          Just following this conversation via my comment and I’ve noticed Christina’s WP problem: I had the same problem because I have a professional blog which I started before my ANZ LitLovers blog. You need to go into the innards of the dashboard, I forget exactly where so you’ll have to hunt somewhere in Settings I expect, and find the bit where it names your *primary* blog. Change that to the one you want, and that should fix it.

        • May 17, 2012 10:50 pm

          Thanks Lisa … I hope Christina sees this. I had a feeling there was somewhere like that you could go to.

        • Christina Houen permalink
          May 18, 2012 8:18 am

          Dear Lisa and Sue

          Thanks for your care. I have gone into Dashboard, then My blogs, and made MemoryandYou primary (I hope).

          I’ll be interested to hear what your readers think of The Chemistry of Tears

        • May 18, 2012 8:40 am

          Glad your problem is solved Christina.

  3. May 17, 2012 9:17 pm

    I’m a sucker for Carey, Sue, and you’re fine review has reminded me to one day soon(ish) get to this! Cheers, John

    • May 17, 2012 10:16 pm

      Thanks John … I’ll be watching for your review. I rather like Carey too, even when he goes “out there”.

  4. May 17, 2012 10:41 pm

    I’m looking forward to picking this up soon. You’re right about Carey taking risks, and even when his novels don’t hang together perfectly, they’re so rich in ideas. Plus, I just love this book’s title.

    • May 17, 2012 10:53 pm

      Exactly Isabella … you always wonder what he’s going to come up with next time, don’t you. I like the cover too.

  5. May 18, 2012 1:53 am

    Oh this sounds really interesting! I’ve really got to get around to reading Carey. I have his last on my shelf and I think I might have one or two other of his books. Putting him in a category with Atwood, well I can NOT read him now.

    • May 18, 2012 8:34 am

      LOL, had to get you in somehow … You have to read a few to see the variety though!!

  6. May 18, 2012 4:41 pm

    I read The Chemistry of Tears mainly because I have a fascination for automatons, but i must admit the novel disappointed me. I could find no sympathy for the characters and felt the novel to be much ado about nothing.

    PS Thanks for your kind thoughts on my cat loss.

    • May 18, 2012 4:46 pm

      Thanks Anne …. you’re not the only one who feels that about the characters. I can see what you say about the characters but clearly I don’t think it was much ado about nothing!

      And I AM sorry about your cat … so hard I know.

  7. May 18, 2012 8:41 pm

    Whoosh! This sounds complex. Have I read any Peter Carey? I fear I haven’t. Too many books piled up at present to start rectifying that just yet, though!

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