The Chemistry of Tears

By Peter Carey

(Faber & Faber, R194)


If you have never read Peter Carey before, his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, is probably not a perfect introduction to his work. First, rather try Oscar and Lucinda, for which he won his first Booker Prize, or Theft: A Love Story – I also loved My Illegal Self, but seem to have been in the minority there.

Carey has won the Booker Prize twice (JM Coetzee and Hilary Mantel are the only other writers to have done so), and is justly regarded as one of the English-speaking world’s great writers.

However, The Chemistry of Tears comes up a little short only in comparison with Carey’s other work. Viewed in its own right, it is a beautifully written and moving portrayal of loss and the ways in which we negotiate our way through a world that no longer contains the one we love.

Carey is a masterful writer, his sentences crafted with a subtlety that never calls attention to itself yet manages to move you to the very core.

And if this gives the impression that Carey is one of those writers who expend all their energy on style, leaving the story itself drained of life, I apologise – his books are, above all, alive and vital, and his characters stick around long after you’ve finished his books.

In Chemistry of Tears, Catherine Gehrig is mourning the death of her married lover and colleague, Matthew.

She finds out about his death almost in passing and is forced to deal with her grief in private because of the nature of their relationship and the level of secrecy they thought they had maintained.

It doesn’t take her long to fall apart, and the process is both appallingly swift and utterly devastating.

A conservator at the Swinburne Museum, she soon discovers that her boss had known about the love affair all along. He tries to help her put back the pieces of her life by giving her a new project: restoring a clockwork swan commissioned in the 19th century by Henry Brandling for his consumptive son.

The Chemistry of Tears tells both their stories – Catherine’s growing obsession with Henry’s diaries and the automaton as she tries and fails to deal with her own loss; and Henry’s desperate hope that with this “magical amusement” he will be able to keep his son alive.

While Catherine consoles herself with the illusion of control and an increasing reliance on vodka, Henry finds himself at the mercy of others, baffled and frustrated in his attempts to have his automaton made, while stuck in the deeps of the Bavarian woods with a motley crew: an egomaniacal clockmaker, an ingenious and injured boy, the child’s mother and a collector of folk tales.

Henry’s and Catherine’s stories explore that which can make life unbearable – the utter randomness of experience – and that which brings consolation when it is least expected – the possibility of wonder. – Iolandi Pool