The Chemistry of Tears is the latest novel from Peter Carey – one of my all-time favourite writers. It’s a much slimmer novel than many of his previous works, but like much of his other work, builds and creates a fully formed, detailed world for his characters to inhabit.
The basic plot was as follows: Catherine, our narrator, has been secretly seeing a married man, a colleague at Swinburne Museum, for many years. At the beginning of the novel she discovers he has died unexpectedly and the story examines her struggle with her secret grief. We follow her as she tries to suppress her pain, whilst being tasked with building a strange automaton recently arrived at the museum. Grateful to bury herself in work, she discovers a selection of journals accompanying the object and finds a kindred spirit in the writer, Henry Brandling, who originally commissioned the automaton as present to his sick child and is also using the building of the automaton to distract himself from his own pain. As the automaton is built, so their stories progress and so Catherine begins to repair.
I was a bit wary picking up The Chemistry of Tears. I have previously been a staunch Carey devotee (Jack Maggs, True History of the Kelly Gang and one my favourites, Oscar and Lucinda). However, the last novel of his that I read was Theft: A Love Story, which I more or less hated. It’s always frustrating when a previously loved author writes something you don’t like. It’s natural, if the writer is any good, as they will adapt, update and search for new styles and material, but that doesn’t stop it from being disappointing. Having been burned before then, I was worried about how The Chemistry… would turn out.
Well, I certainly liked it better than Theft…, though it came nowhere close to his older novels for me. On the negative side, part of the issue was Catherine, our primary narrator. I found her profoundly irritating throughout most of the novel, which was frustrating to read. As she was grieving, I would have thought sympathy was the intended response but I struggled to feel it. Her narrative voice had an odd, stiff quality to it and I’m not sure that there was enough character history or exploration for me to understand why Catherine behaved the way she did; she seemed to make strange, aggressive choices about the work and other people, which without closer examination, I found hard to contextualize. However, the novel is set in a specifically defined time period and indeed, time is a focal point for our characters, both the need of it and never having enough. We are looking at a snapshot of a life – both in Catherine and in Henry Brandling (who I warmed to as a narrator far more) – so detailed exploration or character history wouldn’t really work within that framing device.
Like many of his other works, Carey chooses a topic around which characters’ motivations are built and from which we can learn a great deal about them. He builds a rich, detailed world of knowledge for both his characters and his readers, never presuming that the reader is an expert or a fool. In Oscar and Lucinda this topic was gambling and religion, in Jack Maggs it was mesmerism, in Theft: A Love Story it was art forgery and in The Chemistry of Tears it is automatons. Carey immerses our narrators and the reader in this world, incorporating the science, theory and design of these strange, unreal yet living creatures throughout the book. I have to admit, I found quite a bit of the technical aspects rather dry, but you couldn’t dispute the authority and credibility the detail provided gives to the narrative. Carey shows how beautiful science can be to those that depend on it and the almost religious fervour it can provoke, as seen in the automaton’s craftsman, Herr Sumper.
Carey has always been terrifically gifted at evoking historical settings and I enjoyed all the Henry Brandling sections. You felt his yearning and need to help his son, while knowing he was ultimately helpless. I found Herr Sumper completely terrifying, like something out of a gothic novel and there was definitely an added spookiness to those parts of the novel. He is one of those monstrous, cunning, larger than life men that Carey is so good at imagining. I also enjoyed the vivid descriptions of London in the summer – the inclusion of actual details and events of 2010 really brought it to life for me.
The themes explored within the novel: what it is to be truly alive, grief and our understanding of time are all beautifully explored. I felt distanced from the action much of the time due to my previously noted struggles with the narrative voice, but Carey has unquestionably written a delicate, elegant and uplifting book, celebrating the human spirit.