Review | Friday 27 January 2012
In 1738 French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson built a robotic duck that ate grain, which went through a ‘digestive’ system and produced faeces at the other end. Peter Carey uses meticulous research in this story about love and devotion, set in contemporary London and the nineteenth-century German clock-making town of Furtwangen. The idea of de Vaucanson’s duck is a starting point for this wonderful and poignant novel. More than any other novelist, Carey has the ability to refashion bits of reality to create a truly original and compelling work. As a reader, I derive great pleasure from hunting out those clues.
For 13 years, Catherine Gehrig, horological conservator at the Swinburne Museum, and her colleague, Matthew Tindall, Curator of Metals, had conducted a secret affair of snatched weekends in Suffolk and secret emails (‘I kiss your toes’). Their affair was known only to Catherine’s boss, Eric Croft, the Head Curator of Horology, who encouraged it. When Matthew dies suddenly, Catherine is denied the public rituals of death, and Eric organises for her to work on a project in an annex of the museum away from public view.
The project is the restoration of an ancient automaton, its parts packed randomly in old tea chests. In one of the chests she finds some old journals that give her a key to the nature of their contents. The journals belonged to Henry Brandling, an heir to the Brandling railway company. Henry’s first-born had died and when his second son also appeared sickly, his wife had ‘dared not love the little chap’. Henry would not abandon his little Percy and embraced all manner of treatments enthusiastically; when the London Illustrated News reproduced the plans for de Vaucanson’s duck, it aroused such delight in young Percy that Henry determined that he should have one, travelling to Germany with the plans to commission the finest clockmaker to build him the Digesting Duck. In Karlsruhe, he meets a mysterious stranger, Herr Sumper, who speaks English with an East London accent and agrees to make the duck for him. But Sumper, the former apprentice to the English inventor Albert Cruickshank, who had been commissioned by Prince Albert to build a machine that could calculate and reproduce Admiralty tables, had other things in mind. He would use Henry’s money to produce a silver swan, so cleverly and ingeniously made that it would be a fitting tribute to Cruickshank’s legacy.
As Catherine reads through these journals, Henry’s obsession and his arguments with Sumper become her obsession as she and her assistant, Amanda, a young graduate planted by Eric to keep an eye on her, painstakingly restore the swan. For Eric, the beauty and ingenuity of the swan will seduce the ‘loots and suits’ to give money to support the museum in the new philistine age. As the work progresses, Catherine’s grief becomes more real and more manageable. Carey’s tortured Catherine is one his greatest characters.
The Chemistry of Tears has all of Carey’s fabulist trademarks, while at the same time examining the nature of love and grief in a unique and compassionate way: Catherine’s secret relationship with Matthew consumed her, but when he died her love could not be acknowledged; Henry’s love for his son blinded him to other relationships and experiences. It’s a deeply satisfying book on many levels.
Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings