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

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