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.
The chemistry of tears
Camberwell: Hamish Hamilton, 2012
(Review copy courtesy Penguin Group, Australia)