I have only read one other book by Peter Carey – Jack Maggs (M), a variation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – and I just loved it and raved about it whenever anyone would listen. Another of his – The Chemistry of Tears (M) – I have found to be a more challenging read, but rewarding nonetheless.
Catherine Gehrig is a horologist working at the Swinburne Museum in London. For thirteen years she had been carrying on a secret love affair with her colleague, married man and a father, Matthew Tindall. Despite his unhappy marriage and their blissful years together, she was essentially a nobody in his world and only learned of his sudden death along with, and in front of, her co-workers. She spiraled into frantic grief, the intensity of which brought to mind the opening scene of the 1990’s movie Truly Madly Deeply, in which Juliet Stevenson howls and weeps for her late boyfriend. Catherine’s employer gives her a project, the reconstruction of a nineteenth century automaton, from the journals of one Henry Blanding. The project appears to be a way for her to focus and recover from her grief and a means of removing her from the museum and the possibility of scandal (which seems quaint in the twenty-first century). Catherine drowns her misery in vodka and pills and reflects on her country’s relationship with heavy drinking, while completely aware that she is flirting with professional ruin.
Henry Blanding’s journals take us back to the nineteenth century. Blanding and his wife lost their first child and now appear to be losing their young son. Blanding exhausts all available Victorian cures and appears to be keeping Percy alive through sheer will. By keeping him excited and looking forward, he seems to believe that Percy’s sustained interest will see him through his illness. He travels deep into the German Schwartzwald to find a clockmaker who can make a mechanical swan, and there he meets numerous bizarre and sinister characters. The story travels back and forth between Catherine in 2010 and Henry in the mid-1800’s as each seek the same talisman that just might restore their lives.
The Chemistry of Tears is a short, but complicated book that would probably benefit from a re-read(s). Carey presents Catherine, Henry and Percy as frail, both physically and emotionally, who all turn to the mechanical world as a way of finding order in a random universe.
” A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation — the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.” publisher