The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

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The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A book about grief and about machines and our relationship with them. Two parallel stores - one set in 2010 London and another in nineteenth century Germany - combine in this book which is sometimes challenging but is carried by Carey's superb prose.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Faber and Faber
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780571279975

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As he has done before on several occasions, Peter Carey offers us two parallel stories in his intriguingly titled The Chemistry of Tears. The two elements of the title reflect that this is a book about grief, but also about science. It's also a book about human's relationship with machines and dependence that we have grown to have on them, and the ugliness of life and the beauty of, at least some, machines. In one strand of the story, Catherine is a modern-day horologist working in a London museum whose world is shattered by the death of a married colleague with whom she was having an affair. Put to work on restoring a mysterious clockwork bird, she discovers the journals of Henry Brandling, the nineteenth-century wealthy man who commissioned the construction of the toy for his consumptive son.

Catherine's storyline is by far the most straightforward of the two and is set in a world that is simpler to understand than many of Carey's characters find themselves in. As often with his characters though, she is not particularly likeable and yet he manages to make us feel for her plight. She is completely unapologetic about her affair and has no thought for the widow or her two sons. Her behaviour to her well-meaning boss is vile, and her drunken antics including removing items from the museum for her own personal study at home is, at best, unprofessional. She has no real friends, and it's not hard to see why. However, her story is the more compelling of the two and Carey's prose is excellent particularly in observing the small details and it is this thread that provides what narrative propulsion there is here.

There's always a danger with parallel stories that the reader will favour one at the expense of the other. The best books manage to balance this, but here, the parallel story is an altogether different beast to the Catherine thread. It's much harder to understand and is a more difficult read entirely. In some ways, this is more conventional Carey territory, full of escapades and complexity, but it only shone in patches for me. In fact, Catherine herself sums it up best late on in the book when she narrates about reading Henry's journals, '[I]n fact you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you stared and swore at it'. I was glad it wasn't just me then.

And yet it is this nineteenth century element that contains some of the most intriguing elements of the book. Henry's journey to find someone to build his automaton takes him to Germany where he encounters the strange Herr Sumper whose previous employment has been with an Englishman by the name of Cruickshank who would appear to be a representation of that pioneer of programmable computing, Charles Babbage, who Carey acknowledges in the book. This raises ideas about the difference of machines and souls and is more in line with Carey's usual fare of big ideas.

I never felt drawn in to the Henry thread, and while there is the usual dazzling prose from Carey, I couldn't escape the feeling that Catherine does more of the work in a book that should have been more equal. It also frustratingly hints at ideas which are not really developed. Cruickshank's calculating machine was never completed because he was under-funded, while Henry is at least initially well funded and spends his wealth on a mere toy. One of Cruickshank's ideas was to save lives by mapping the seabed and this is contrasted with the modern day oil spill disaster, presumably the BP spill, where technology has destroyed marine life rather than saved human life. It's less clear what Carey wishes us to make of all this.

The ending is also a disappointment. It's sudden and not particularly satisfying. I'm all for writers who expect the reader to do some of the work, but I wished Carey had developed these things a little more. Carey is always worth reading for the quality of his writing and only a fool would suggest that he won't again feature on this year's Booker list, but for me, the I was drawn more to the quality of the writing than to the plot and that's not ideal.

Out thanks to the kind people at Faber and Faber for sending us a copy of this book.

Amongst the other books that we think might be gracing the Booker Prize judges bedside tables this year are Absolution by Patrick Flanery and Capital by John Lanchester, but there will doubtless be some surprises in store!

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