Peter Carey is one of the literary world’s big guns. Australia’s best-known author is part of that rarified company who has not only won the prestigious Booker Prize—the UK’s equivalent to the Pulitzer—but has actually done so twice, for 1988’s Oscar and Lucinda and again in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang. Besides these obvious highlights, his other work is often equally rewarding. Jack Maggs (1997) is his evocation of Victorian London, while the more recent Theft (2006) channels a snappy, bad-tempered contemporary narrator to tell a tale of heartbreak, revenge, and art.
In other words, Carey is a big deal. It’s not an overstatement to say that, for many readers, a new novel is something of an event.
It’s also something of an unpredictable one. As evidenced by the novels mentioned above, Carey possesses an unusually wide range of interests and concerns. He’s equally adept at writing stories set in the present day, or 80 years ago, or 150; at stories set in Australia, Britain or the Far East, with charcters young and old, wealthy or destitute, male or female. This kind of virtuosity is hard to come by, and it is the result of painstaking attention to detail, as well as the careful arrangement of those details into a compelling narrative.
The Chemistry of Tears incorporates many of the expected elements in a Carey novel—muliple points of view, first person narrators, and a strong historical element. This time around, though, the author has decided to blend historical and contemporary storylines. He does this via a time-tested, but still clever stratagem: the epistolatory tale.
Epistolatory stories are told via letters, or sometimes diaries, ships’ journals, or maybe—in this modern age—emails, texts and tweets. Carey’s novel opens in traditional first-person narrative, then switches to a set of journals from the 19th century. The balance of the story bounces between these two perspectives.
The modern story concerns Catherine Gehrig, a museum conservator who has just suffered the loss of her lover, a married family man whose affair with Catherine has been carefully concealed for 13 years. Stricken by grief, Catherine retreats into her work for solace and escape. That work consists of the reconstruction of an elaborate automaton, an artificial swan that was designed to swim, eat and even excrete.
The story of how this remarkable construction came into being, as well as numerous mysteries concerning its creation, is the subject of several journals that accompany the automaton. It is this set of journals that Catherine becomes obsessed with as she struggles to cope, both with her grief and with the puzzle of the deconstructed, and mind-bogglingly complex, mechanical swan.
Carey maneuvers these subtle yet complicated narrative and emotional tides with typical sure-handedness. Much of this has to do with the voices of his narrators. Catherine faces the world and her loss with clear-eyed, typically British stoicism, but her steely control belies an inner turbulence that is as affecting as it is believable. She relies on simple declarative sentences to get her through her day and through the story: “I made the bed and threw my clothes in the wash. I swept the cornflakes off the floor and washed out the whiskey glass. I cleared away the bottles and made myself cup of tea.” A wealth of information is suggested in these simple sentences.
Equally compelling is the character of Henry Brandling, the 18th-century railroad heir (and journal writer) whose quixotic journey results in the construction of the automaton. His language is rather more colorful than Catherine’s: “The collector of ancient cruelties was a mere smidgen,” he tells us in describing a self-professed fairy tale collector, “a tiny creature, with a mass of salt-and-pepper hair… He cut a most unusual figure, soft-skinned, half man, half child, with his head in perfect proportion to the whole.”
More than a little stuffy and self-important, Brandling is the latest in a long line of literary characters who lack of insight is matched only by their obtuseness to the world around them. (See also Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers.) His story is by turns moving, frustrating and mysterious, but by the end of the novel, his story and Catherine’s have woven a web of subtly interlocking thematic strands.
Ultimately, that describes the book in a nutshell: subtle. There are few verbal pyrotechnics in this book, and no plot-related ones at all. The storylines do merge and resonate off of each other in a satisfying way, but the movement here is internal and emotional, not external. It would be difficult to imagine a strong visual image to represent the book’s emotional climax, for example. Then again, I thought the same of Oscar and Lucinda, and look what they did with that.
In the pantheon of Peter Carey novels, this is likely to be viewed as a fairly minor book. At a bit more than 200 pages, it reads quickly, its twin narratives creating forward momentum that’s difficult to resist. But even though it lacks the density of some of his more ambitious novels, The Chemistry of Tears is nonetheless an engaging and diverting book, and one well worth reading. There’s a reason why Carey is a big gun, and he shows enough here to prove it once again.