The first Peter Carey novel I ever read ended up thrown against the wall in anger. That was Oscar and Lucinda. Actually it is the only book I’ve ever thrown against the wall. Not because it was bad, but because I cared so much for the characters. Funny then that the main character of his new novel, a woman name Catherine Gehrig, does the same with a nineteenth century manuscript. Unfortunately Catherine is not nearly as endearing as Oscar or Lucinda, but I was willing to overlook her faults considering the circumstances.
The Chemistry of Tears opens with the death of Catherine’s married lover, Matthew, and we watch as she mourns, cries, and generally self-destructs, which leads to the incident with the manuscript. She works as a conservator at the Swinburne museum and to assist with her healing, her boss gives her a new project, the re-creation of an automaton (we later find out a swan). Starting the project she unpacks the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the patron who commissioned a robot duck from some shady characters in the German Black Forest. In reading these notebooks, even after stealing them from the museum, Catherine begins the process of healing and recovery … for the most part.
I’ve read several of Carey’s books and this was definitely the most difficult to finish. Catherine’s actions in her grief and self-pity are sometimes distasteful. In addition Henry’s story is a bit convoluted and confusing. I had to re-read several passages to make sure I understood the plot. Overall Carey’s themes of the constitutive elements of life and death and the lingering impact of the Industrial Revolution give the novel its heart. The quote below is one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the book as it describes this imitation of life:
“Every eerie moment was smooth as a living thing, a snake, an eel, a swan of course. We stood in awe and, no matter how many hundred hours we had worked on it, this swan was never, not for a moment, familiar, but uncanny, sinuous, lithe, supple, winding, graceful. As it twisted to look into one’s eyes, its own stayed darkest ebony until, at that point when the sun caught the black wood, they blazed. It had no sense of touch. It had no brain. It was as glorious as God.”
We imagine this imitation of life while in the background is the indescribable horror of the Gulf oil spill that Catherine’s assistant watches unceasingly on a webcam. If the book has a failing it is that Carey is trying to do too much, prove too much, so that some of the story becomes muddled and confused. But then again, is that an imitation of life?
If you are using Nancy Pearl’s Rule of Four to find a new book (which I just read today), Carey’s doorway is most certainly language with plot, characters, and setting mixed somewhere in there. It is a beautiful book, but it may take some dedication and perseverance. Good qualities in a conservator.