Combined Reviews: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

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chemistry_of_tears.jpg    The Chemistry of Tears
Peter Carey
Penguin Books

From the publisher's page:
When her lover dies suddenly, all Catherine has left is her work.

The long affair had been kept secret from their colleagues at London's Swinburne Museum and now she must grieve in private. Or almost. In an act of compassion, the head of her department gives Catherine a very particular project, something to cling onto: a box of intricate clockwork parts that appear to be the remains of a nineteenth-century automaton, a beautiful mechanical bird.

Once she discovers that the box also contains the diary of the man who commissioned the machine, one obsession merges into another. Who was Henry Brandling? Who was the mysterious, visionary clockmaker he hired to make a gift for his ailing son? And what was the end result that now sits in pieces in Catherine's studio?

The Chemistry of Tears is a portrait of love and loss that is both wildly entertaining and profoundly moving, simultaneously delicate and anarchic.

At its heart is an image only the masterful Peter Carey could breathe such life into - an object made of equal parts magic, love, madness and science, a delight that contains the seeds of our age's downfall.


Andrew Miller in "The New York Times": "There is, of course, a certain base curiosity in seeing how persuasively a writer crosses the gender divide. How well does Carey, a 60-something author of Australian origin, long resident in New York, inhabit the skin of a prickly, 40-something, middle-class Englishwoman? It is, perhaps, in his depiction of Catherine as a technician, a professional piecer-together of old and elaborate things, that he presents her most effectively, most winningly. He has clearly done a vast amount of research into what conservators and curators do in modern museums. The Swinburne and its unlovely annex are always entirely convincing places, and there is much incidental pleasure in learning about the place -- the tools, the dust coats, the fume cupboard, the elaborate hierarchies...In an interview a few years ago, Carey spoke of admiring the quality of "risk" in works of fiction. This, I think, is exactly right, risk being an index of a book's and a writer's ambition. The Chemistry of Tears takes risks, is quietly ambitious and is, in its last pages, both touching and thought-provoking."

Ron Charles in "The Washington Post": "This is the third of Carey's cerebral short novels about the provenance of curious objects. In My Life as a Fake (2003), he scanned the slippery lines of a fraudulent poem; in Theft (2006), he swirled through the palette of art forgery. In The Chemistry of Tears, his heroine picks through hundreds of corroded springs, tarnished silver rings and glass rods gunked up with old glue...Amid the smoke of mysticism rising from these pages, how reassuring it is to come upon Catherine's complaint that 'the account was filled with violent and disconcerting "jump cuts". . . . In fact, you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you started and swore at it. One learned to live with fuzziness and ambiguity in a way one never would in life.'...That warning should be printed on the spine of The Chemistry of Tears for anyone tempted to peer into this 'sea of ambiguity, delusion, wonder, possibility, amongst all the murk and confusion.' No other popular literary author is so wily -- so willful about letting us remain in the fog."

AS Byatt in "The Financial Times": "This is not an easy book to read. I was haunted throughout by the sense of a pattern of ideas that I couldn't grasp. At the other extreme, Carey creates Catherine's lonely and obsessive misery so brilliantly that it is both painful and claustrophobic for the reader. The first page is arresting and shocking and it goes on that way. We share her pain and we also share Henry's pain for his sick son - though it is interesting that Catherine doesn't. She remarks that it is hard to imagine how one could care as much about a child as about a lover. She is completely convincing and not altogether nice...Carey's world is always interesting and thought-provoking. His splendid Oscar and Lucinda (1988) also combined a wonderful artefact - a glass cathedral - with the mathematics of gambling, and religious riddles and puzzles. At the end of The Chemistry of Tears Amanda produces another vision of what may be concealed in the hull of the automaton. There is a mystery I haven't understood about a blue cube. The novel is baffling as well as exciting."

Andrew Motion in "The Guardian": "Carey has tackled some of these ideas before (the most obvious precursor to the construction of machines in this book is the transportation of the church in Oscar and Lucinda). But here everything has been designed, tooled, oiled and fitted together with greater economy and an equal panache. Does this mean the book ends too neatly? No. Even as it settles its main concerns, it floats new ideas (was golden boy Carl the young Karl Benz?), and emphasises latent themes (the greater love between parents and children; the endless human capacity for misunderstanding)."

Nina Caplan in "The Independent": "This novel lacks the wicked energy of Parrot and Olivier or Theft: A Love Story. But if Carey's best books are superlative, the next tier down is still better - meatier, more imaginative - than many writers ever manage. The Chemistry of Tears is awash with grief, some of it Carey's: for the breathless faith in our own perfectibility that has degenerated into environmental disaster. All those clever, delicate hands and brains - who knew they would wind up wreaking such havoc? We are truly a sulphurous species."

Troy Jollimore for "The San Francisco Chronicle": "In the real world - that is, ours - the Difference Engine was designed by Charles Babbage, on whom Cruickshank is partially based. Mixing fiction and historical fact is a favored strategy of Carey, who has dipped his pen into bygone eras several times before and twice won the Booker Prize for it (for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001). This ambitious, playful and engagingly strange novel does not, perhaps, burn quite so brightly or shimmer quite so beguilingly as Carey's best books. But it is still quite lovely, and rather like an automaton, it does seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts."

"The Complete Review" weblog: "Carey's two main characters do not act entirely rationally -- both having the excuse of the emotional stress they're under, justifying (or explaining) how they act. (Catherine also self-medicates to considerable excess, which also leads to more impulsive behavior.) There's a surprising amount of physical lashing out in the novel by the characters, a striking contrast to the very predictable and planned movements of, for example, the mechanical swan...The mechanical offers a predictable -- and lasting -- perfection that the human body can't match...Messy life, as Catherine and Henry (and everyone else) live it, of course, doesn't allow for such simple perfection...Carey cleverly works with these contrasts in his often beautifully written and artfully constructed novel."


Nina Caplan for the "New Statesman".
Jan Dalley for "The Financial Times".
Simon Mann for "The Age".


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The author introduces his book:

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 11, 2012 1:59 PM.

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