The Chemistry of Tears

Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears
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The Chemistry of Tears

Peter Carey

When her lover dies suddenly, all Catherine has left is her work. The long affair had been kept secret from their colleagues at London’s Swinburne Museum and now she must grieve in private. Or almost. In an act of compassion, the head of her department gives Catherine a very particular project, something to cling onto- a box of intricate clockwork parts that appear to be the remains of a nineteenth-century automaton, a beautiful mechanical bird. Once she discovers that the box also contains the diary of the man who commissioned the machine, one obsession merges into another. Who was Henry Brandling? Who was the mysterious, visionary clockmaker he hired to make a gift for his ailing son? And what was the end result that now sits in pieces in Catherine’s studio? The Chemistry of Tears is a portrait of love and loss that is both wildly entertaining and profoundly moving, simultaneously delicate and anarchic. At its heart is an image only the masterful Peter Carey could breathe such life into - an object made of equal parts magic, love, madness and science, a delight that contains the seeds of our age’s downfall. ‘The Chemistry of Tears - alive with the vivid evocation of place and period that is always Carey’s forte - juxtaposes love for a dead partner with love for a dying son … A novel by one of the present day’s most unconventionally creative writers. Oddball characters are propelled along zigzagging narrative channels, connections made with whimsical aplomb. As always, too, everything is burnished with vitalisingly poetic images. The Chemistry of Tears isn’t only about life and inventiveness- it overflows with them.’ Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times ‘Audacious yet restrained, tender yet sardonic, and filled with moments of emotional complexity … A beautifully elegiac hymn to lost love.’ Patrick Arlington, Australian Book Review ‘Masterly historical fiction that both talks about now, and makes the past seem immediate … I loved this book for its mysteries, its hinted back stories, its reserve, and its underlying complexity.’ Lucy Daniel, Daily Telegraph ‘A master-class of writing and human insight is to be found in Peter Carey’s new novel with its thrillingly off-kilter focus … There is so much powerful human emotion rising from the pages.’ Liam Heylin, Irish Examiner ‘The Chemistry of Tears is yet another triumph for its creator, breath-catchingly beautiful and tender in places, with strange and shocking revelations slowly revealed.’ Camilla Pia, The List ‘ Carey remains a writer with an unerring sense for the perverse in human affairs. The continual and guilty delight of these early sections, the funniest, most cutting and anarchic, is that they acknowledge what we know to be true but dare not say- grief gives delirious licence to all those behaviours we otherwise hold in check.’ Geordie Williamson, Weekend Australian ‘Peter Carey’s is an intricately constructed narrative, with its tender, astringent reflections on the nature of love and mortality, human ingenuity and human destructiveness … The fine bloom on his writing, the sharp, green bite of emotion and the pellucid observation seem entirely unaffected by success and a (well-deserved) place in the modern canon.’ Jane Shilling and David Sexton, London Evening Standard ‘This is a comic novel … but it’s also a serious examination of love and loss and grief and obsession and how we manage to keep going even when all clocks have stopped.’ Stephen Romei, The Spectator (Australia)


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

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