The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

This is another book I read for the Kimball Museum’s book club. I found it off-beat, enigmatic, and worthwhile reading, although not really a page-turner. Maybe it’s I who is off-beat because it seemed that no one in the group liked it, at least the outspoken members. I really don’t know how I feel about the book; put me down as neutral.

Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice, for the novels Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. This is the first book by Carey that I have read so I have no basis for comparison. However, two reviews stated that:

Peter Carey’s dazzling new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, encompasses heartbreak, the comfort of absorbing work, the transformative power of beauty and the soul of an old machine. If you’ve never read the Australian-born, two-time Booker Prize–winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang — or, most recently, Parrot and Olivier in America — his 12th novel is a terrific introduction to his work. Once again, Carey demonstrates an artful ability to capture a two-way interplay between past and present that is part historical, part fanciful and completely wonderful (McAlpin, Heller,

This novel lacks the wicked energy of Parrot and Olivier or Theft: A Love Story. But if Carey’s best books are superlative, the next tier down is still better – meatier, more imaginative – than many writers ever manage (Caplan, Nina,

So, I have more books to put on my to-read list. As they say, so many books, so little time.

Maybe what the book club readers were reacting to is that The Chemistry of Tears is a novel that speaks to the intellect rather than the heart. While it is tightly engineered, The Chemistry of Tears also contains vagueness and ambiguity, mystery and wonder. This novel reaches a bit too far for ambiguity to make the book really accessible. Carey’s goal in the book is setting up the illusory versus the actual, the mechanical versus the organic; it just takes great deal of work on the reader’s part to get it.

Peter Carey moves between two time periods, two countries, and two main characters. Catherine Gehrig is an horologist working at the (fictional) Swinburne Museum in London. The book begins when she learns of the sudden death of a heart attack of her lover, Matthew Tindall, Head Curator of Metals at the same institution. Catherine has been Tindall’s mistress for 13 years. He was older, married, and a father, but the pair of them lived an idyllic, secret life together. Now, Catherine believes that all possibility of happiness in life is gone.

Despite her grief, which we hear a lot about and which should make her a sympathetic character, Catherine isn’t easy to like. Her voice is brittle and snooty. It isn’t a voice that seduces. Quite soon, it’s possible to wish she would keep quiet about her “secret darling.”

It is in his depiction of Catherine as a technician that Carey presents her most effectively. He has clearly done a massive amount of research into what conservators and curators do in modern museums. The Swinburne and Catherine’s workroom are always entirely convincing places, and there is much incidental pleasure in learning about the place, the tools, the dust coats, the fume cupboard, the elaborate hierarchies.

Eric Croft, her boss, is one of the few at the museum aware of her affair with Tindall. He hopes that a new project, the complex reassembly of a magnificent, mid-19th century automaton of a silver swan, will distract her. He also provides an exceptionally able young assistant, Amanda, along with boxes packed with the swan’s hundreds of screws, rods and rings and eleven densely filled notebooks.

These are the journals of the second character, Henry Brandling, a British railroad heir who, desperate for entertainment for his sickly young son, travels deep into the land of expert clock makers in the German Schwarzwald in 1854 to commission a mechanical toy duck that will eat grain, apparently digest it and then, with a whirring of springs, defecate. Catherine becomes obsessed with Henry’s fantastical tale about his dealings with Herr Sumper, a mechanical genius and probable con man, and his strange household, a story that alternates and ultimately intertwines with her own.

There are many strings left hanging at the end. Ambiguity, remember? However, in the end, details (and logic) don’t really matter. The closing scenes, in which Catherine and Amanda finally recreate what Henry Brandling brought back from the forest, are among the best in the book, and the moment when the swan is set in motion is delightful.

Watch a video ( of the mechanical Silver Swan housed in the Bowes Museum in Northern England, which inspired Peter Carey.


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