Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears

Peter Carey
The Chemistry of Tears

Faber & Faber, 2012

It’s a new multi-layered and complex novel from the two-times Booker winner.

London, 2010. The lover and a colleague of Catherine Gehrig, conservator at the Swinburne museum, dies of a heart attack. They were lovers for 13 years. No one knew about their relationship, except just another museum employee, Eric Croft, a researcher, historian and master of all that is ticking and tacking, as well as the chief of Catherine. Croft calms Catherine, gives her sick leave so the woman would be able to grieve in solitude, because she even can not appear at the funeral. Catherine worries that her private emails to the deceased lover can be viewed by outsiders. The server with the letters is not yet available, and Catherine is waiting for the moment when she will be able to remove them. Croft also gives Catherine a special assignment - to try to restore the mechanical creation of the middle of the XIX century. Next to the parts of the mechanism Catherine finds 11 handwritten notebooks belonging to someone who was responsible for the creation of a strange automation for over a century ago. Without waiting for an official scanning of notebooks, Catherine begins to read them one by one, gradually learning about the mechanism and the man who took notes. Catherine begins to read the diaries and get drunk every day until she loses consciousness, to forget about the death of her lover. Thus, chapters are alternating, on behalf of Catherine, on behalf of Henry, the author of notes, and the interlude between them, on behalf of both characters.

This multi-layered story is like a mechanical swan, it is hard to piece together, but admirable, being already done. The novel attracts because of mystical and fantastic elements. Mechanical swan, found a half-century before, mysterious notebooks, a crazy inventor and a crazy student of the inventor, all of these elements give us a reason to call “The Chemistry of Tears” a steampunk novel. X-rays, which Catherine was so afraid to do, were able to show the existence of the soul in an automated swan, the author gives an allusion. Amanda, who also has read the manuscript, is guessing that the old mechanism was a prototype for car engine. Peter Carey here raises the question whether all human beings have a soul, and why we believe that an automation doesn’t? This question remains open. But for Sumper, for example, everything is clear: his countrymen, ignorant people, who are interested in nothing, they have no soul, while his creation is more than a duck on wheels.

Two main characters, Catherine and Henry, resonate well, each of whom suffered the loss (though we did not know whether Henry had a duck in time and saved his son from the disease). They are nervous people, but not desperate, just ultimately lonely. Reading Henry’s notes in the place where he writes that love to a child is stronger than love to a person of the opposite sex, Catherine throws his notebook with anger. She believes that it is impossible to compare both types of love. The power of love depends on how many feelings people puts in it. Carey skillfully describes the condition of a person who lost a loved one. Carey is not sentimental, not trying to knock away a tear, does not cut his prose into small pieces-sentences, but his melodic and captivating prose conveys all the emotions.

In the story there are several dead-end lines that are puzzling. Why did Croft introduce Amanda and Catherine’s lover’s son? There is also unclear moment with Croft trying to flirt with Catherine. He just does not want to take the place of Catherine's lover, but his desire to protect Catherine, even after her recovering after the death of Matthew, is difficult to explain. Closer to the finale, they argue, but then, as if nothing had happened, in the restaurant celebrate presentation, and Croft even kisses Catherine on the cheek.

Carey has definitely written a captivating story of grief, hope, despair and loss.

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