The Chemistry of Tears: Peter Carey

Chemistry of TearsPeter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears made me think I should have called this blog Bewildered by Books, not Bewitched. While I could (mostly) follow the plot quite easily there were times when I had no idea what the characters thought they were doing and especially what was the point of the whole book and story.

The book has two story lines, one historical and one modern-day, interlinked by a complex piece of aesthetic machinery, an automaton in the shape and character of a swan.

The modern story concerns Catherine (aka Cat) who is an horologist who works for Swinburne Museum. Catherine discovers by chance that her long-term lover had just died and much of her behaviour through the book is supposedly dictated by her grief. Catherine is a self-obsessed, selfish and personally indulgent character who I didn’t find at all likeable. Her alcohol and drug abuse, breach of museum protocols and boundless disregard for the safety of the pieces entrusted to her seem completely unjustifiable in terms of grief, which the average reader will have coped with without Catherine’s level of self-indulgence.

The other characters in the modern world are no more endearing: her “kindly” yet manipulative boss, her manic assistant, her lover’s children. None of these characters rang true for me and the only bit of the story which stood up was the need to please the “loots and suits” in terms of the income-generating capacity of the swan automaton.

As part of her boss’s grief therapy for Cat, he assigns her the task of bringing back to life a large automaton of a swan, crafted in the mid-19th century. Among the assets are a pile of books written by the man, Henry Brandling who had commissioned the swan (well a duck actually). Henry’s story seems no more surreal than Catherine’s despite his presence in the Black Forest among a small group of enormously skilled, English-speaking German craftsmen and a child genius.

Henry’s motivation for contracting the automaton is to find something which will keep his child alive against the odds of illness, and his hope that this might also restore him in his wife’s credit. As bizarre as the craftsman Sumper appears, he is no less so than much of the rest of the story.

If the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is supposed to link to the theme of machinery, then I also found that self-indulgent. As shocking as it undoubtedly was, to place that as the rationale for Cat’s assistant’s behaviour again seems self-indulgent. Placed against the human horrors of war, death and genocide that has characterised the past 160 years since the automaton was hypothetically constructed, this seems utterly disproportionate.

Ultimately we are left with the conclusion that Henry did manage to get his amazing automaton (how else would it have come to the Swinburne), but without any idea of whether he succeeded in his goal of saving his son, for me the crux of the story.

It may well be that I prefer a simple, logical story line but either way this book was a flop from my point of view. I wanted to tell them all to just “get a grip” and grow up. I honestly felt this book had been a waste of my time reading it.

Magic carpet factor: 2½

6 thoughts on “The Chemistry of Tears: Peter Carey

  1. I think I’ll pass on this one. I’m not a great fan of Peter Carey… though I did like Oscar and Lucinda, though I suspect that came about because I saw the film first, and it was filmed in and around my home area. I find I lose interest if I have to keep working out what the author means. invariably, I later discover that what I thought, was somewhat different to what others thought. I appreciated your review…I have a feeling that I would not have persevered as you did.

    • In some respects it was an easy read Chris, just not very rewarding. I have a “new” copy of Oscar & Lucinda in hardback on my bookshelves that I could never get into to…should have seen the film;-) Maybe I just shouldn’t bother with it. If I do I’ll read about it here. Some books do manage to make me feel more than a little stupid.

  2. I don’t think I would have bothered with the film (Oscar and Lucinda) if I had just seen the book… I found it tedious for the most part. Then once I watched the film again, the book was easier… The film is beautifully produced, I loved the costumes, especially the rich embroidery in some, and also the scenery as I looked for familiar places. Hire the dvd perhaps and the book may then be interesting.

  3. I know what you are saying about getting lost at times, Pauleen, but I did enjoy this book. I did think Catherine was over the top but I don’t think Carey is ever meant to be read realistically (I mean floating a glass church down the Bellingen, I think, River in Oscar and Lucinda!). I enjoy his writing and the way he pulls the most amazing things together. I think though that I’m in the minority.

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