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on May 16, 2012
Upon reading the description of Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears, I couldn't help but think of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and I know I'm not the only reader to make this connection. So much was that children's novel in my mind, that I just assumed the automaton in this novel was also a mechanical man. It is not. It is a duck (Or is it?) being manufactured at great expense to cheer (Cure?) an ailing child. (An ailing marriage?) We learn of these goings-on in 1854 from the extensive notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Englishman who commissioned the device from a dubious craftsman in rural Germany. And we explore those notebooks via Catherine...

Catherine Gehrig is a horologist at London's Swinburne Museum. She's a conservator who specializes in timepieces and clockwork mechanisms. As the novel opens, she has just learned that her colleague and married lover of the past 13 years has died suddenly. She is completely overcome with grief, but she's unable to show it due to the secret nature of their relationship. However, she's equally unable to hold it in. She breaks down in front of "the worst possible witness in the world." It's her boss, Eric "Crafty Crofty" Croft, and it seems her secret wasn't as well kept as she had thought.

Croft shows her the best kindness he is able. As a start, he gets her relocated to the museum's annex where she can work away from prying eyes. And, he gives her a complex and important project with which to distract herself. It is, in fact, the restoration of Henry Brandling's duck. And as she and her new assistant, Amanda Snyde, take on this challenging assignment, Catherine becomes increasingly consumed by the journals Henry left behind. They are each, in their own way, dealing with crushing grief. Thinks Catherine:

"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 you interrogate the unclear world. 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 in a way one never would in life.

Yet I was a horologist. I had to know how things fitted together."

The happenings in both nineteenth century Germany and contemporary England become somewhat fraught. Characters in both timelines appear to be pursuing their own mysterious and possibly harmful agendas. For such a brief novel, there is so much going on, and so many layers to consider. For instance, in Catherine's contemporary story, we learn that her lover died the day after 2010's BD oil spill. In her distracted state, it is weeks before Catherine even learns of this disaster which is preoccupying her countrymen. But with images of gushing oil providing a backdrop to her tale, it's hard not to see it as a commentary on industrialization when juxtaposed with Henry's narrative at mechanization's infancy.

Readers meet Catherine in extremis. She is more or less falling apart throughout this novel. It's not pretty and she's not all that likeable, though I did find her rather sympathetic. I found myself wishing to meet this woman under different circumstances. And I think that impulse gives you an idea of the life that Carey brings to his thorny, flawed, and frequently unknowable characters. Any opacity is deliberate, as the novel's language is both precise and poetic. The Chemistry of Tears is as intricate a construction as Brandling's automaton, and ultimately just as beautiful. Master craftsman that he is, Carey makes all the pieces fit together.
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The earlier years of the Industrial Revolution saw its share of visionaries, people who viewed technology as conduits to an ideal life. By mastering some aspects of creation, men could be as gods. This thinking is found as early as Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN of 1818, but that was about remaking life, bioengineering. Peter Carey suggests that it applies to mechanical invention as well, that the interest in automata at around that time -- clockwork figures of humans or animals behaving in a lifelike manner -- might have had a similar spiritual dimension, much as the invention of the computer made people think they were finally exploring the mysteries of human thought.

In PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA, Carey showed his ability to write -- and subvert -- the traditional historical novel. But the elements of art and fantasy that tinted that earlier book are given fuller rein here, despite a framing story that theoretically keeps its feet on the ground. Catherine Gehrig is a rationalist. A horologist at the fictional Swinburne Museum in London, her job is to catalogue and restore rare mechanical objects. But she has become unmoored by the unexpected death of a colleague, with whom she had been conducting a secret affair for years. Her boss gives her a project to distract her: the restoration of what turns out to be a mechanical silver swan, built in the Black Forest in the 1850s. Accompanying the pieces of the automaton are a series of diaries by the patron who commissioned the object, an Englishman called Henry Brandling, looking for a toy duck to restore life to his dying son. His journey to Southwest Germany brings him into contact with an extraordinary individual called Sumper, who virtually hijacks his project because he feels it is his sacred mission to build him something better.

Seen as a piece of straight narrative, this book would be rather a mess. Carey crams a lot into it, from Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine (a forerunner of the computer), through the invention of the internal combustion engine, to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. But I don't think it IS meant to be taken straight. Having just come from reading Italo Calvino, I must admit to a tendency to read everything as though it were surreal, but all the same I see a deliberate excess in Catherine's language, and certainly in her behavior, as she purloins precious objects to study them at home, and gives in to drinking and uncontrolled mood swings. Gradually, the alternating chapters headed "Catherine" and "Henry" are interspersed with others entitled "Catherine & Henry," as the two grief-stricken narrators virtually combine.

We are no longer in straight historical novel territory here, even the relative clarity of split-period novels such as Simon Mawer's MENDEL'S DWARF. The manner is much more like Peter Ackroyd's CASEBOOK OF VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN or even more his HAWKSMOOR. There were moments when I felt the shadow of Kazuo Ishiguro, or Paul Auster, or Orhan Pamuk. This is relatively new territory for Carey, and I don't know that he has mastered it yet. But he writes well. "The sky was black and bleeding like a Rothko," he says of an approaching London storm. Later on, one of his characters references the painter in defense of the aesthetic of ambiguity: "Without ambiguity you have Agatha Christie, a sort of aesthetic whodunnit. But look at any Rothko. You can look and look but you never get past the ambiguities of colour, and form, and surface." The first step in Catherine Gehrig's healing is her acceptance of ambiguity. It may be a frustrating process for the reader, but I did find it an interesting one.
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HALL OF FAMEon May 22, 2012
(4.5 stars) Although he has often dealt with the themes of identity, reality, and what it means to be human, Australian author Peter Carey creates a new approach to these ideas in this complex and sometimes strange novel with two overlapping narratives set one hundred fifty years apart. Catherine Gehrig, a Curator of Horology (clockwork) at the Swinburne Museum in London, has led a secret life for thirteen years, enjoying an affair with Matthew Tindall, the married Head Curator of Metals. On April 21, 2010, she arrives at work to discover that Matthew is dead, and that she is apparently the last to know. Frantic with grief, she cannot even imagine how to go on with her life without Matthew.

Head Curator of Horology, Eric Croft, arranges for her to take sick leave and then to move to the privacy of the museum's Annexe in Olympia, where she will have a special job - to go through eight boxes filled with assorted gears, screws, and machine parts, along with assorted papers associated with an automaton of a duck from the mid-1850s, then restore it. When Catherine discovers notebooks in the boxes, she introduces the second narrative, a detailed diary which opens in June, 1854, and features a style of writing compatible with the period. Henry Brandling, a wealthy Englishman with an invalid son believes that if he can find someone to make an amusing duck automaton based on the real plans for "Vaucanson's duck," made in the eighteenth century, that Percy will be filled with "magnetic agitation," which will help him conquer his disease. Brandling travels to Germany to Schwarzwald to find a clockmaker who will make the automaton.

Within this unique and fascinating framework, Carey explores many different aspects of reality and what makes humans unique. Automatons seem real, and the more complex the machinery is, the more "real" they seem, ironically. Henry Brandling does not know if the people he has hired are being honest with him and whether he will ever actually see the toy he has already paid for. Sumper, the man who is ultimately in charge of the task, meets Brandling at the inn the night he arrives, but he already knows who he is and why Brandling is there, adding an element of mystery and otherworldliness to what has seemed so far a fairly straightforward tale. Monsieur Arnaud, who works with Sumper, collects fairy tales. Catherine's view of her own reality also changes as the restoration work continues.

While all this is going on, other motifs arise and continue, and these are sometimes mystifying since they do not feel completely integrated with the narrative: a playing card showing the "deep order" of the city of Karlsruhe, a sketch of the city arranged as a perfect circle; stories about Sir Albert Cruickshank, a mathematician who developed an early adding machine and a primitive computer; Samper's creation of a satiric automaton of Jesus Christ for Cruickshank; and eventually, the BP gulf oil spill, which began the day that Matthew died, leading to the question of "Who made the machine that kills the ocean?" Fewer of these motifs would have strengthened the narrative and the themes, for this reader at least.

The great dialogue, unusual subject matter, important themes treated in unique ways, and characters who engage our interest make this a story to celebrate, but the narrative, though wildly creative, is weakened when all these competing elements and motifs are introduced as parallels and overlapping images. There is much to ponder here. Perhaps a bit too much. Mary Whipple
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on August 1, 2012
Reason for Reading: Peter Carey's True History of the Kelley Gang is one of my all time favourite books and I've always meant to read another by the author. With this latest book coming out, the time period and the automata piqued my interest enough to decide to give him another go at this time.

I'm not even going to try and analyze just what the hidden, under the surface meanings are in this story, there are plenty but it gives me a headache looking at this book that way. I just want to read it and enjoy a good story. Read it I did but I only found a mediocre story. We start off on the first page meeting the main character, an adulteress, with no redeeming qualities. Her married lover has just died and she is totally wrapped up in herself. She has no cares for his children, whom he loved dearly and we learn that she often was jealous of them. She is quite younger than this man and her life seems to have existed for their relationship together, and her job as an horologist at a museum secondly. That's all, no friends, no family. Catherine, or Cat, as she is commonly called is given a project to restore to help her with her grief by the only person at the museum who knew about her affair.

The text alternates between Catherine in the present dealing with her grief, possessiveness and selfishness as she becomes somewhat obsessive over the automata that she and a young assistant, whom she dislikes and distrusts, are working on. Cat is also reading through the ledgers/journals that came packed with the assemblage which gives us the other view. Henry Blanding tells his story set in the 1850s of how he came to a strange little German town and had an even stranger man build his clockwork duck for him. His journal is written to his young son whom he promised this prized possession in hopes that it would make him well, as he is a sickly boy, most likely consumptive. Henry also is not a rather likable fellow. His wife has refused relations with him, denied to care for their son, since their first child, a daughter died the same way. She is loveless to them and Henry is pathetic in his attempts to be all and do all for this cold woman who brings in an artistic crowd to their house to have her portraits painted. Henry is eventually persuaded to leave the house, his search to make the automata his pretence for leaving. While unlike Catherine, Henry does slowly change throughout the book, for the most part he is a weak man, easily taken advantage of, of superior mind of course being an Englishman, and emotionally volatile.

There is more to say, but I shan't go on. The basic plot of the two stories was entertaining to read, the writing naturally superb, and I had no problem getting though the book quickly; I'm sure its short length helped matters though. But I had no connection to any of the characters, not liking them, nor caring what happened to them in the end. Not everyone is sane in this story and it's up to the reader to decide who is or isn't sane. Perhaps they are all off their rockers. The ending does little to satisfy this reader.
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on July 10, 2012
"I kiss your toes." Good grief. I found The Chemistry of Tears to be an impenetrable mess. I have no idea what the author was trying to accomplish and could not generate an iota of interest in the endless grief of a cocaine snorting, alcoholic, adulteress who steals rare materials from her job and brings them to her home where they could be stolen or damaged during one of her drunken stupors. Brandling's diaries are tedious and clearly the work of a deranged mind. How the two stories are meant to intersect (along with the cheap thrill of the Gulf oil spill which, hey, didn't turn out to be so terribly dire after all, sorry about that, Carey) is beyond me. I can't imagine that this work would have been published had it not borne Carey's name. It seems once an author gets to a certain level of fame, he can put out anything, and the reviewers fall in line. It's the literary equivalent of The Emperor's New Clothes. At least it was short, so not too many hours were wasted.
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on July 12, 2012
I have read all of Carey's work and have loved him------but on an ever diminishing scale. This effort is so much like the work of Umberto Eco that, if I didn't know better, I would have believed him to be the author. This is not a good book. Unless you are a Brit, you will not understand the numerous references to British places, buildings, events, etc etc. The love affair of the main protagonist, Cathrine, a clock specialist, with her married lover is shallow; the switches from the present day to the 18th century are confusing; the description of machines, equipment, etc are unintelligible and most of the characters are poorly drawn and unbelievable. Just like Umberto's work.
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on June 24, 2012
Have just finished reading, The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey.
Very Peter Carey-ish!
Think about the title as you read it. The words 'chemistry' and 'tears' reflect the novel's intricacies and dissections on a myriad of levels
Went to hear Carey talk as part of the Luminato festival in Toronto
He was fantastic. Unfortunately eBooks are hard to write on so I had to have other titles signed.
... further thoughts on Chemistry of Tears. I had been hesitantly wondering about its relationship (somewhat tenuously) to the steampunk genre.
Really would have liked to ask Peter Carey about that--but you know how it is...
So imagine my surprise and feelings of vindication re my literary leaps when I came across the article, Of silver swans and steampunk, in Express Night (05/30/2012) by Stephen M. Deusneri.
Carey is quoted as saying that he,

"thinks his new novel, "The Chemistry of Tears," might fall under the subgenre of "steampunk."

"The notion, as I (Carey) understand it, is old technology in the modern world," Carey says. His book has plenty of "old technology" -- namely, 19th-century automata, incredibly intricate robots whose clockwork innards allowed them to (stiffly) simulate natural movement"

So, I'm feeling vindicated about my thoughts re steampunk and the novel.

The book showcases Carey at his pithy, puzzling best; relationally and historically, and leaves us with the disquieting reflection of the destruction of mankind by invention of the combustion engine.
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on October 4, 2012
As he has done before on several occasions, Peter Carey offers us two parallel stories in his intriguingly titled "The Chemistry of Tears". The two elements of the title reflect that this is a book about grief, but also about science. It's also a book about human's relationship with machines and dependence that we have grown to have on them, and the ugliness of life and the beauty of, at least some, machines. In one strand of the story, Catherine is a modern day horologist working in a London museum whose world is shattered by the death of a married colleague with whom she was having an affair. Put to work on restoring a mysterious clockwork bird, she discovers the journals of Henry Brandling, the nineteenth century wealthy man who commissioned the construction of the toy for his consumptive son.

Catherine's story line is by far the most straightforward of the two and is set in a world that is simpler to understand than many of Carey's characters find themselves in. As often with his characters though, she is not particularly likable and yet he manages to make us feel for her plight. She is completely unapologetic about her affair and has no thought for the widow or her two sons. Her behaviour to her well-meaning boss is vile, and her drunken antics including removing items from the museum for her own personal study at home is, at best, unprofessional. She has no real friends, and it's not hard to see why. However her story is the more compelling of the two and Carey's prose is excellent particularly in observing the small details and it is this thread that provides what narrative propulsion there is here.

There's always a danger with parallel stories that the reader will favour one at the expense of the other. The best books manage to balance this, but here, the parallel story is an altogether different beast to the Catherine thread. It's much harder to understand and is a more difficult read entirely. In some ways, this is more conventional Carey territory, full of escapades and complexity, but it only shone in patches for me. In fact, Catherine herself sums it up best late on in the book when she narrates about reading Henry's journals, "[I]n fact you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you stared and swore at it". I was glad it wasn't just me then.

And yet it is this nineteenth century element that contains some of the most intriguing elements of the book. Henry's journey to find someone to build his automaton takes him to Germany where he encounters the strange Herr Sumper whose previous employment has been with an Englishman by the name of Cruickshank who would appear to be a representation of that pioneer of programmable computing, Charles Babbage, who Carey acknowledges in the book. This raises ideas about the difference of machines and souls and is more in line with Carey's usual fare of big ideas.

I never felt drawn in to the Henry thread, and while there is the usual dazzling prose from Carey, I couldn't escape the feeling that Catherine does more of the work in a book that should have been more equal. It also frustratingly hints at ideas which are not really developed. Cruickshank's calculating machine was never completed because he was under-funded, while Henry is at least initially well funded and spends his wealth on a mere toy. One of Cruickshank's ideas was to save lives by mapping the seabed and this is contrasted with the modern day oil spill disaster, presumably the BP spill, where technology has destroyed marine life rather than saved human life. It's less clear what Carey wishes us to make of all this.

The ending is also a disappointment. It's sudden and not particularly satisfying. I'm all for writers who expect the reader to do some of the work, but I wished Carey had developed these things a little more. Carey is always worth reading for the quality of his writing and only a fool would suggest that he won't again feature on this year's Booker list, but for me, the I was drawn more to the quality of the writing than to the plot and that's not ideal.
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on June 25, 2012
Already twice a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, Peter Carey now offers his readers The Chemistry of Tears, a complexly constructed study of grief and self-identity set in contemporary London. Despite its modern-day setting (2010), however, the novel can also legitimately be called historical fiction as much of its story is lifted directly from the pages of a nineteenth century Englishman's personal diary.

Catherine Gehrig is a conservator at the Swinburne Museum whose thirteen-year affair with a married colleague is still a mostly well-kept secret. As far as she knows, no one at the museum suspects that she and Matthew Tindall, one of the museum's head curators, have a relationship of that sort. Their secret is so successfully kept, in fact, that when Matthew dies suddenly, Catherine is among the last of the museum employees to get the news. Now, her whole world in turmoil, she must pretend that she has not been emotionally crippled by her devastating grief.

Fortunately for Catherine, her boss - the one man who now seems to have been aware of the affair - places her on immediate sick leave before transferring her to a more isolated museum annex to work on the unusual project he has chosen for her. There Catherine finds eight boxes filled with the diagrams and mechanical parts needed to restore and assemble what appears to be a160-year-old duck automation. It is when she discovers a series of notebooks relating to the origin of the automation that Catherine becomes obsessed with her new assignment.

Carey will, from this point, alternate accounts of Catherine's life with pages taken from the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Englishman who originally commissioned the amazing automation she is working to reconstruct. Brandling, a man completely devoted to his sickly young son, hopes that the boy will be so taken with the mechanical duck that he will somehow find the will to conquer the disease that is slowly killing him. Brandling's willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his son alive brings him to a tiny German village where he falls into the hands of a strange clockmaker who will drive him closer and closer to despair.

The Chemistry of Tears tackles complex human emotions, emotions that probably have to be personally experienced for one to comprehend their full impact on the human psyche. Catherine's entire identity, the person she believed herself to be, was defined by her affair with Matthew Tindall. When Matthew died, the old Catherine Gehrig died with him, and now she is working just as hard to reconstruct a self-identity for herself as she is on rebuilding the antique mechanical duck. Whether or not she can succeed with either project is the question.

The Chemistry of Tears is a moving novel, one that will especially speak to those readers who have suffered a level of grief similar to Catherine's. While it is not a long novel, it does suffer a bit from an overabundance of mysterious side plots pertaining to the tribulations suffered by the automation's original owner. Readers, however, should not be overly discouraged by this because The Chemistry of Tears is well worth the effort required - and each of the side plots contributes to the book's atmosphere or depth of the Henry Brandling character.
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VINE VOICEon April 8, 2013
I listened to the Audio Book version of 'The Chemistry of Tears' read by Susan Lyons and Jefferson Mays who were wonderful actors/readers. I'm glad I listened to this, I wouldn't have been able to get through the print version reading it myself, I wouldn't have gotten the tone right and I wouldn't have necessarily read the funny parts as such.

I loved the beginning of this story; Catherine Gehrig, devastated after the death of her lover of thirteen years is restoring a mechanical bird made in the mid-1800s. The bird was commissioned by Henry Brandling with the hope that it would improve the health of his ailing young son by giving him something to focus on and entertain him.

Brandling's journals detailing his quest to have the automaton made are included in the packing crates with the animal itself. Catherine reads the journals and learns about the man who loved his son, as well as the man whose genius created the creature and the young boy who worked as his assistant.

Catherine's supervisor at the Swinburne Museum, Eric Croft, has given Catherine this restoration assignment in an attempt to protect her from the curiosity and gossip of others who might come to suspect what her relationship with her coworker Matthew had been, as well as to offer her something to focus on and keep her from falling apart in the depths of her grief. He assigns a gifted assistant to the project who has some interesting ideas as well as issues of her own.

I liked the characters Carey created. I loved the blow by blow between Henry Brandling and Herr Zumpa who created the bird. I also loved the relationship between "Crofty" and Catherine, he was tender and kind to her. And I loved the beginning of this story, but felt Carey drove every one of these characters off a cliff at the end of the book.

I don't need to have a story tied up in a nice neat bow but a little conclusion to some things is enjoyable to me as a reader. This started out great but then ended with a fizzle and a gurgle with no feeling of resolution to any of the story lines at all.
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