Clockwork is a fascinating concept to weave through a story in the digital age. I am old enough to remember winding my first watch but it is many years now since I have had anything other than a digital watch. If I put my mind to considering whether our household has any clockwork mechanisms at all, all I can come up with is a (somewhat twee) Christmas decoration featuring Santa on a music-box merry-go-round and our (rather unreliable) 1930s mantel clock. That’s probably typical of most households today. Clockwork has been relegated to the realm of museums, antiques, and nostalgia.
But in a splendid return to the dazzling form which produced Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, is a deliciously eccentric tale of obsession, centring on clockwork, and grief.
Hidden grief is probably more common than we know. In Carey’s tale, Catherine Gehrig is The Other Woman, trying to grieve in secret for Matthew Tinsdale who, until his untimely death, is her colleague and lover at London’s ‘Swinburne Museum’. No one else knew about their affair, (or so she thought) so she tries to deal with her loss without any of the support that a grieving widow could take for granted. She can’t attend the funeral. She receives no consolatory sympathy cards. None of the stilted, awkward words of well-meaning friends ease her way through the raw passage of grief through the human heart.
But it is Carey writing this novel, so Catherine’s journey is anything but dignified. Naughty man, he makes his readers smile, chuckle, and laugh out loud at poor Catherine’s antics. An obsessive and controlling personality, she is well-suited to her job as the first female horologist at the museum, but try as she might, her efforts to behave as an unfeeling mechanical creature are sabotaged by the madness of her overwhelming grief.
The director of the museum is an unlikely shining knight to rescue Catherine from herself; he has a sort of ‘God complex’ which manifests itself in interfering in other people’s personal relationships. Eric Croft is privy to her secret, and he arranges for her to undertake an absorbing ‘special project’ in a private annexe to the museum, where she may sob obsessively (and delete incriminating emails) without invoking the perplexed curiosity of any colleagues.
Catherine’s task is to reassemble the innumerable scattered clockwork parts of a 19th century automaton, an ingenious mechanical duck designed by M. Vaucanson. (Such a duck did originally exist). Croft provides her with an assistant, the clever and beautiful Amanda Snyde (who is more than she seems) and who spends her lunch time peering obsessively at screen images of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico on her ‘Frankenpod’. Croft also on Catherine’s behalf negotiates his anarchic way through the inevitable bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that bedevils all institutions these days, but she doesn’t make it easy for him, and she’s not spectacularly grateful either!
In Carey’s tale, the duck, a marvel of 19th century invention, was (or might have been) created to amuse a sick child by a father with an obsession to rival Catherine’s own. Through journals she discovers in the box of parts, Catherine retraces his journey: Henry Blandling travels to Furtwangen in Germany, the home of craftsmen in clockwork, to have the duck made from plans he has found. It is a bizarre journey, parts of which left me occasionally confused as to what was going on. This is partly because of the form that Carey has played with…
The plot is revealed in alternating chapters. There is Catherine’s first person narrative, which isn’t always coherent due to, er, her indiscretions. At times she is mad with grief, and at other times she’s just nutty. Then there is Blandling’s narrative, which
consists consisted of his eleven journals until, er, they became fragmented and had to be read in bits and pieces shreds. He’s not only nutty too, but he’s surrounded by characters not just nutty but also weird-and-scary enough to rival anything from a Grimm’s fairy tale.
With the German characters Carey’s whimsy is in full flight. Frau Helga, Herr Sumper, the boy Carl aka The Genius and the fairytale collector M. Arnaud confuse and exasperate Blandling with their obsessions, their lies, their magic and their mysteries, and all the while poor Blandling does not know if he is chasing a dream for a son who may already be dead. (We ought to feel sorry for him, but he’s not a very likeable character. Too bad-tempered, too judgemental).
Fortunately, just as I was about to reread a complete chapter to try to unravel the tangled plot threads, Carey provided some advice in the form of Catherine’s reflections on her experience of reading Blandling’s journals:
It had been tantalizing to stare through a glass darkly, to see or intuit what had taken place in Furtwangen and Low Hall so long ago. Reading in this way did not require that you interrogate the unclear word. In fact you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you stared and swore at it. One learned to live with fuzziness and ambiguity as one never would in life. (p199)
So I am reprieved from trying to make sense of the fuzzy bits, it seems…
It’s interesting that Carey chose to set this novel in London, not New York where he’s been resident now for ages. One mustn’t stereotype, but perhaps there is something quintessentially British about genuine eccentricity? Or is London’s WW2 legacy of keeping a stiff upper lip, and adhering to the maxim to ‘keep calm and carry on’, better suited than a city lampooned for its excess of psychiatrists and grief counsellors?
I liked this novel much better than Parrot and Olivier in America!
© Lisa Hill
Author: Peter Carey
Title: The Chemistry of Tears
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia