Review: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey‘s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, is an affecting book. As you’ll gather from the title, it’s a sad one. Unfortunately, it is not just the protagonist’s circumstances that are lamentable, but the story as well.

Carey’s latest creation tracks the grief of a vodka-imbibing horologist from London’s fictional Swinburne museum whose secret lover has unexpectedly died, and I found myself moved by her grief. The Chemistry of Tears is a thoughtful book, and well-written. Carey’s prose is clean and elegant, his occasional pretentiousness notwithstanding (“the sky was black and bleeding like a Rothko”). The pace, too, debuts at a crackle. With an opening sentence like “Dead, and no one told me,” I was braced for a story that would cut to the heart of the matter.

Regrettably, while the narrative had me turning pages at the beginning, at the end I wished there were more to turn. And I don’t mean this in the ‘It was so good I require more’ sort of way. The book ends on a note of such ambiguity I couldn’t help feeling misled.

The seductive introduction builds agreeably through the novel’s middle as the protagonist, Catherine, is drawn — via a restoration project involving a mechanical swan — into the strange 19th-century world of British rail magnate Henry Brandling. Henry, for his part, is stuck in the Black Forest with some shady cuckoo clock makers who have a penchant for white asparagus.

This connection is made possible through Henry’s journal, which Catherine discovers at the office along with the swan, and promptly steals (I told you the book got off to a good start). Consequently, the novel is structured around alternating chapters from the present and excerpts from this journal. These two characters’ narratives are tied by their respective interest in the swan (which Henry commissioned) and more deeply by their struggle with mortality (Henry is hoping the automaton will save his ill son, and Catherine is reeling from the death of her lover).

This entanglement through time is executed admirably — the 19th century writing is imbued with authentic flavour and succeeds in imparting a Dickensian penchant for ornate prose without sacrificing readability. And the two sections really seem like they were written by different authors. It’s very cool.

The book’s themes are equally intriguing, as they explore the complicated relationship between humans and their technology. Environmental degradation figures largely, with the BP oil spill being a (vague) leitmotif of the novel. The boundary between the human and the artificial, too, is probed as Catherine grapples with death while resurrecting a lifelike machine. The premise of the novel is elegantly suited to such topics.

And everything about the novel is elegant — from the title down to the last comma — except the plot. We are taken on a journey with Catherine through her loss, her grief, her new relationship across centuries with Henry, and her struggle with the swan as she puzzles over how to put the ancient contraption back together. And yet it ends up nowhere in particular. How was Catherine changed by all of this? I can’t say — she was just as distraught on the last page as she was on the first. What impact did building the swan and connecting with Henry have on her? I don’t know — I was waiting to find out, but never did.

Instead, the novel ends with cryptic references to the inventor of the internal combustion engine and to the world’s first computer — suggestions of plot twists not twisted. One of the characters hypothesizes the swan was a ruse for smuggling engine technology to England, but we don’t find out if it’s true. And we never discover what happened to Catherine, Henry, the swan, or his ailing son. The book ends, but the story doesn’t.

Peter Carey is an intelligent and talented novelist — certainly the people on the Man Booker Prize committee can attest to it. But this novel reads more like an essay, considering its lack of character development and closure. Consequently, I can’t help wondering why Carey didn’t simply choose to write nonfiction. Because while the ideas he floats are worthy, the narrative isn’t.

Worse, he doesn’t seem to care for the story — the characters almost feel abandoned part way through their journeys. Rather than having a human focus, The Chemistry of Tears is more like an intricate automaton, designed to be structurally sophisticated rather than narratively cogent. Carey takes us into Catherine and Henry’s world without telling us that their stories will be subordinated to his meditations on technology and what differentiates the living from the inanimate.

And interesting meditations they are. Moving, even. Yet I can’t recommend this book, because I imagine those who read it — even those who, like me, enjoy untidy endings — will be frustrated by the lack of meaningful change in the lives of its characters. It’s not that the book isn’t worth reading, if you aren’t bothered by such things. Just don’t look forward to finding out what happens, because nothing much does.

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