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Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey

The novel opens with Catherine Gehrig having recently heard of the death of her long term lover, Matthew. Her disorientation and confusion at the world continuing as if nothing has happened is well drawn, and the reader is led to put aside curiosity over their thirteen year affair to contemplate the agony of having lost someone so dearly beloved and yet having to hide the depth of feeling. Her senior, Eric Croft, is aware of the situation and gives her a project to work on away from the Swinburne museum at which both she and Matthew worked.

Her task, to reconstruct a mechanical masterpiece from the nineteenth century, leads us neatly into the split narrative form Carey is known for. Alongside the numerous parts of the duck-cum-swan are the diaries of Henry Brandling who commissioned the piece in the desperate hope that it would save his ailing son. Brandling comes across as somewhat bumbling but well intentioned, enraging his wife with his endless optimism. His quest leads him to the Black Forest, renowned for its ingenious clockmakers, and to Herr Sumper, a curious, perhaps brilliant, mechanical worker who is not satisfied with merely creating the duck that Brandling so desires.

Catherine, in her grief-stricken, increasingly unreasonable state, steals the diaries and becomes obsessed with his story – grief and longing connecting them across the years. Her struggle with Matthew’s death is most explicitly portrayed in her reliance on alcohol and difficulty interacting courteously with those around her. Carey does not leave it on such a superficial level however, detailing her constant thoughts of Matthew’s decaying corpse and her anger at those who go on living when he is gone. Death and decay hang over the novel in the descriptions of every day life – the tube is described as having ‘committed suicide’, the sky said to be ‘bleeding’. The tone of the writing does not let you forget.

An intriguing premise for a story which leads you along two vastly different narratives that nonetheless fit together well enough. Carey explores the power of the object through Brandling’s obsession with his mechanical duck, as well as Catherine’s attachment to his diaries. The strength of this encounter at one remove is mirrored in her assistant Amanda’s fixation on the live footage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In this way Carey attempts to explore universal human responses to disaster and pain.

There are some interesting ideas nestled within this book which at a cursory glance is not particularly enthralling. In saying this, however, there are mysteries to be revealed, not least the absent Matthew, whose character and feelings are revealed to us in a slow trickle.

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