Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears (2012), by Peter Carey

The Chemistry of TearsClockwork 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.

Duck of Vaucanson (Wikipedia Commons, also reproduced in Carey’s book p24)

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

Update: Patrick Allington has written a terrific review at the ABR.

Author: Peter Carey
Title: The Chemistry of Tears
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2012
ISBN: 9781926428154
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia

Fishpond: The Chemistry of Tears


  1. Lovely review, Lisa. It puts me in mind of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, something about the obsession and interconnecting pieces. Plus whimsy and fairytale as a bonus. And I love the illustration of the duck, it’s just wonderful! I have never read any Peter Carey, but this would tempt me.


    • I think I’ve got that Perec on my TBR – oh, if only I could read faster!!


  2. This seems like a return to form of Carey who is a aussie writer I have read a number of books ,that mix of history fiction and a touch of the surreal he does so well ,great review I ll think I ll get this as I passed the last one due to tepid reviews and on whole it story didn’t appeal that much to me ,all the best stu


    • Hi Stu, I wasn’t keen on ‘Parrot’ either – but this one is different. Mine was an advance copy from the publisher but it’s been released for sale in Australia now so you can expect to find more reviews of it online soon.


  3. I’ve been waiting to see a review of this book. I have a love/hate relationship with Carey and I was put off reading his last one because I wasn’t the least interested in the topic. But I do like the sound of this.

    As an aside, I’m hoping to read Illywhacker later this year — I’ve got a brand new spanking copy here and I’m intrigued to see whether I’ll make it to the end. I tried to read it in 1995 but I was writing my masters thesis at the same time, so was slightly distracted. Have you read it, Lisa?


    • *chuckle* I made it just in time to add it to your Aussie Reading Month, Kim!
      Re Illywhacker, I’ve read and liked almost everything he wrote up to & incl Jack Maggs, and everything else is on the TBR. But I don’t remember Illywhacker well enough to comment on it, whereas Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda, and Jack Maggs have stayed with me all these years.


  4. This sounds WONDERFUL. Clockwork has always fascinated me and Carey so deftly weaves a theme into his stories. Has to go near the top of my wish-to-read list. Thanks for the lovely review.


    • Hi Debbie, I think one of the reasons it appeals is that so many of us were enchanted by the clockwork gizmos that were a staple of museums in my childhood. We travelled a lot when we were children, and wherever we were in the world, my father always took the three of us to the museum, the art gallery and the library (of course!). I have memories of standing entranced in front of all kinds of mechanical thingamajigs, but the ones I remember best were the little clockwork gold-mining shafts and machinery from the Melbourne Museum – where in due course I took my own son to share the same experience.


  5. An interesting book by the sounds of it :) I loved ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ but didn’t think much of ‘His Ilegal Self’. I think I’ve been unconciously avoiding him since…

    Well, his books, I mean, not him, as such.


    • I know what you mean: I tried Theft as an audio book and couldn’t get into it.


  6. Thanks for the review. I have The Chemistry of Tears sitting here, and Parrot & Olivier, and Oscar & Lucinda! the only Carey I’ve read so far is Theft. So many books… I love the sound of the clockwork element, though. Have you seen Hugo? There’s a great automaton in that. And it’s a lovely film.


    • Hello Angela – welcome!
      I haven’t caught up with Hugo yet, I think I forgot to go to the cinema this holidays LOL.
      I loved your LM review of Amanda Curtin’s short stories…I’m off now to hunt out a copy of her novel:)


  7. I am second on the reserve list at the library. I don’t always like Carey books but this one sounds good. There is a write up about Carey in this Saturday’s Age.



    • *chuckle* I have no doubt that Carey will get plenty of publicity, some people talk of him as ‘Australia’s next Nobel winner.


  8. Well I read the The Chemistry of Tears and again I struggled with Carey’s writing. I didn’t like Parrot, but didn’t mind His Illegal Self. Theft I did not like at all. Maybe I didn’t connect with The Chemistry of Tears because I just read Carrie Tiffany’s novel Mateship with Birds, which was so natural. I loved the film Hugo and the automation of the duck did remind me of the Hugo. I did have a few smirks and Catherine annoyed me so much, and yet I could sympathize with her grief.


  9. […] Lisa of ANZLitLovers also liked this novel. […]


  10. Love your review Lisa which I didn’t read until I’d pretty much finished mine. Your description of the characters as “nutty” made me laugh – but it’s pretty accurate too. I also like your use of the word “whimsy” and the fact that Brandling didn’t know whether it would all be too late.


  11. […] Lisa of ANZLitLovers also liked this novel. […]


  12. I really enjoyed your review. I came to your page because I was seeking answers – I’ve just finished reading the book. I think I feel a bit empty because I don’t know what happened between Henry Brandling and his son Percy once the blooming Duck had been created. I’m wondering whether I missed something, or that is simply one of the great mysteries of the book. I feel sad not knowing after such a big journey (reading the book).


    • Hello Kate, and welcome:)
      You are tempting me now to re-read this delicious book to see where the puzzle lies because it’s been over two years since I read it. But alas there are a couple of books that have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin that I need to read and as usual the TBR is threatening to overwhelm me.
      My recollection is that it’s meant to be ambiguous, but I may be wrong. Perhaps a more recent reader of the novel can help out here?


      • Thanks Lisa. Yes. After I left my message with you, I did further research and realised that a common theme when critiquing this book is the ambiguity around whether Percy actually was alive and enjoyed the swan when Henry Brandling got home. Whatever happened to the Swan from the time it began it’s trip to London (second last chapter) and when Catherine uncovers it will always be a mystery to the reader. I thought it was a great book, but I think I’d prefer to know what happened (seeing as the book is partly about the ‘fuss’ of creating/obtaining the Duck/Swan). But obviously it is not really so much about that as how similar Catherine and Henry are in their obsessive nature. Thanks again for you comments. – Kate


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