Despite Peter Carey winning two Man Booker Prizes (The History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda), I can’t help but notice the trepidation with which many people approach his novels. Since the release of The Chemistry of Tears I have had several conversations about this in which people admit to having extremely varied reactions to Carey’s writing - loving some books but failing to find a way in with others. Similarly, I admit that I was curious but wary of The Chemistry of Tears. However, two days after starting the book I had finished it and many days after that I was still thinking about it. So to any of you that are hesitating over, or flat out resisting, The Chemistry of Tears, stop. This book is good. Really good.
Catherine, an horologist (expert in timepieces) who works at London’s Swinburne Museum, discovers that her secret lover of almost ten years has died. She falls into a reckless and self-destructive grief from which Eric, Catherine’s colleague and only person who knows of her affair, tries to save her. He gives her a project to restore a 19th century automaton through which she finds a series of notebooks amongst the boxes of mechanical parts. They are the journals of Henry Brandling. Henry is a wealthy gentleman who embarks on a journey to have an automaton duck built for his sick son. He travels to a foreign land where he meets the opportunistic and eccentric Sumper and a mysterious mother and child who take Henry’s money and faith in order to service their own visions; and so the second part of Chemistry of Tears falls into place. Carey weaves together two seemingly disparate stories into one cohesive narrative on the nature of grief and love. It is in this structure that I have my one criticism of the book. The danger of a narrative alternating between stories is that the reader will prefer one story to the other. Indeed, I found myself looking forward to Catherine’s story more.
Chemistry of Tears is a confronting commentary on the high place that machines occupy in everyday life. Carey is making the point that machines, whether it be cars, automatons, “frankenpods” (smartphones), the internet and computers, are the new gods in today’s society; it is in them that we place our faith and emotions, it is through them that we express how we feel. Brandling tries to save his son through a mechanical duck and Catherine’s affair is represented by emails trapped on a work laptop and a second-hand car that the two lovers restored together. On a more dire level, the BP Gulf of Mexico spill is ominously present in the later half of the book - a tragic and insistent reminder of the destruction that can occur when technology becomes too powerful and too trusted. If machines are our gods, then the oil spill is a plague that has been inflicted on the earth; the price we have to pay.
The pace and tension of the novel is heightened by Amanda, a beautiful assistant who is placed on the project to monitor Catherine’s behaviour, yet who also proves to be unstable herself. She is an important addition to the book, taking it beyond Catherine and Henry’s grief and yearning to into the realm of a thought-provoking perspective on the relationship between technology and society, and technology and the individual.
Carey’s novels hooked me on two levels. I was drawn to the raw emotion of Catherine’s grief and the subtler version of loss in Henry; yet I was also engaged by the larger arguments swirling around in the background - many of which I have yet to put together, but will attempt to do so on a second reading.
Reviewed by Nat