Friday, 22 June 2012

Review - The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey is a novel for the mind rather than the heart. I have read nearly all of Carey’s novels, but if you are coming to him for the first time I would probably not recommend The Chemistry of Tears as your starting point, although it is a very fine book. It is engaging, intellectually challenging and thought provoking, but not a book to grab the emotional attention. I think that this is deliberate on Carey’s part – there are several themes at work, and an interesting structure, but this is a book which is the product of deliberate, cold choices, a book which skates over the surface of devastating emotional events and focuses on the ability of the intellect (and science) to manufacture a simulacrum of life as a substitute for confronting and dealing with life head on.

Carey has said that he started this book from a collection of objects and ideas, and worked backwards to see how they could be incorporated into a novel. The automaton silver swan which connects the parallel story lines is clearly one such object and part of the pleasure of reading The Chemistry of Tears is spotting the others. He made several false starts before setting on two main narratives. Catherine is a horologist, an expert on the conservation and reconstruction of clocks and automata working in a London museum. As we encounter her, she has just discovered that the married colleague with whom she has been having a passionate and fulfilling affair for many years has suddenly died. She is devastated; all the moreso because she cannot share her grief with anyone and her life is otherwise an isolated one. However, one senior colleague (Crofty) has been aware of the situation and arranges for Catherine to be moved to an annexe and assigned the reconstruction of a mysterious automaton in order to distract her.

As Catherine begins to assemble the object and unravel its mysteries, she deconstructs and disassembles her affair, deleting the secret emails between herself and her lover one by one from a computer. She is assigned a new assistant, Amanda, gifted but unstable who turns out to be linked to Catherine’s life in unexpected ways.

Alternating with this present day story is the tale of the original construction of the automaton, deep in the Black Forest in the Victorian Era. Henry Brandling, the son of a family who had become wealthy in the Industrial Revolution, has been rejected by his wife and is terrified that his ill son will die. His quest is an attempt to create a magnificent object that will reignite his son’s love of life and his wife’s love for him. In Germany he will encounter a strange and unstable family who will help him in his task, as Amanda is helping Catherine, though again not always in ways that he will appreciate or understand.

In some ways I found this an unsatisfying novel, yet in the couple of weeks since I have read it I have found myself thinking about it at odd times. The lack of stability of many of the characters makes it difficult to warm to them – I did not feel that I got to know them or could understand their actions. Nonetheless, the book is beautifully constructed and clearly has been written in this way deliberately. Many ideas are at work, and the complexity of the novel mirrors the beauty and complexity of the automaton at its core. I may well read it again.  See Carey talking about the novel below....

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