The Chemistry of Tears
By Peter Carey
Hamish Hamilton, $39.95, pp 271
Only two writers have won the Booker Prize twice: Peter Carey, an Australian who has lived in New York for 20 years, and John Coetzee, a South African who has called Adelaide home for the past decade. Each has had their chance for a historic third win, Coetzee in 2009 for Summertime, the magnificent third instalment of his fictionalised memoirs, and Carey a year later for Parrot and Olivier in America, his exuberant reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville’s travels in the New World.
Carey went closest: in a 3-2 decision, the Booker went to The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, who in the lead-up to judgement day craftily placed a piece in the Guardian complaining that the comic novel was no longer taken seriously: it was good enough for Dickens, and so on. Funnily enough, Carey, for all his grand themes (which include retelling Dickens) and epic visions, is a writer who revels in humour, from the dark comedy of his 1981 debut, Bliss, to his new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, which to my ear strikes his most overtly comic tone yet.
Here is his main character, Catherine Gehrig, a fortysomething conservator in the horology department at London’s Swinburne Museum, the morning after
the night before:
… I was hungover. I had been slaughtered, legless, trolleyed, slashed, shedded, plastered, polluted, pissed. I thought, I do love my country’s relationship with alcohol. How would I ever exist in the United States? I suppose I would have grief counselling instead.
Catherine has been drinking in grief: as the novel opens, she learns that her colleague and long-time secret lover, Matthew Tindall (‘Of course he was married. Of course. Of course’), has dropped dead of a heart attack, on the Tube no less.
‘There was no one I dared turn to,’ Catherine thinks, but this underestimates her sleek boss, Eric Croft, who knew of the affair and decides to rescue his employee, doling out advice, booze, cocaine and, crucially to our story, a job to keep her busy: the restoration of a mid-19th century automaton, an intricate and beautiful mechanical swan. (Not unlike the one, I should think, at the Bowes Museum in north-east England.)
When Catherine opens the eight tea chests containing the disassembled (and at this stage unidentified) ‘object’, she finds something unexpected: the notebooks of the wealthy Englishman who commissioned it, Henry Brandling. Through these we learn Henry’s story in parallel with Catherine’s contemporary one, and of course each has echoes of the other. ‘I pitied him before I read a word,’ Catherine thinks.
Brandling, who Woosterishly admits that ‘one cannot claim that sanity has been, so to speak, one’s birthright’, has a desperately ill son, Percy. When the boy is excited by a detailed drawing of Jacques de Vaucanson’s famous mechanical duck of a century earlier, Brandling decides to have one made for him, and travels to Germany because he believes there he will find clockmakers up to the task.
Find them he does, and in the garrulous giant Herr Sumper, the child genius Carl and other colourful locals, Carey has created characters ripe with comic opportunity, especially in their interactions with Henry and the Englishness he represents. Take the following passage, in which Sumper recalls the time, during his London apprenticeship, when he broke into Buckingham Palace and surprised the Prince Consort in bed:
… Queen Victoria … now appeared at the door in her nightgown. Speaking in German she asked Prince Albert to explain his bedfellow, although she used a rougher word … He answered in French telling her that I was about to murder him, at which news the Queen closed the door and went away.
Brandling wants a duck, but Sumper and Carl build a swan. And they build something else, or so we suspect by the end of the novel, something just as beautiful and far more significant, for reasons wonderful and terrifying. Carey’s conclusion pushes us off an imaginative cliff top, one that in hindsight we realise we have been skirting all along. And now, as someone who believes reviewers who blab the plot should be shot, I will say no more.
Carey writes with such effortless fluency, spinning the yarn so well, that it’s easy to glide past the sharpness of his observations (the ‘heartless men with polished Eton cheeks’ whose money makes the museum go round) or to underestimate his emotional acuity. When Catherine’s beautiful and brilliant young assistant (or is she a spy?), Amanda, helpfully transfers Matthew’s emails from Catherine’s computer to a memory stick, the older woman is distraught: ‘…what really stings is that [she] has forcibly removed Matthew from my cache. She has made me hold him like ashes in a vial.’
In the three decades since Bliss, Carey has produced a new novel every three years or so, almost like clockwork. The Chemistry of Tears (the title is explained toward the end) continues the assured work of his mature career (he’s 68). He won his first Booker in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and his second in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang, which for me remains his greatest work. Whether this new novel will ring up the treble time will tell, but I’ll be surprised if it’s not in contention.
I said at the outset that this is a comic novel, and it is, but it’s also a serious examination of love and loss and grief and obsession and how we manage to keep going even when all clocks have stopped.
Stephen Romei is the Australian’s literary editor. His blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws, is at www.theaustralian.com.au/thearts.