Twice a Booker Prize winner and a Commonwealth and Miles Franklin honoree as well, the incomparable Carey returns with a story of secret grief assuaged. A museum conservator in London, Catherine learns that her lover and colleague has died but hides her pain because he was a married man. Her boss, the only person who knew of her affair, seeks to help by having her work alone on a project involving a 19th-century automaton. When she discovers the diaries of Henry Brandling, the man who built the automaton, she enters into an understanding of the desire for invention, the magic of creation, and the healing power of love. An A-plus purchase.
A puzzling novel that doesn't reveal its secrets easily. The latest from the renowned and prolific Carey (Parrot and Olivier in America, 2010, etc.) is too fanciful to pass as realism yet too inscrutable for parable or fable. Though all of it (or at least half of it) concerns a grieving woman's attempt to re-engage with life after the death of her married lover, the prevailing spirit is comedic, even whimsical, rather than tragic. And the prevailing metaphor is that of clockwork, the mechanical precision of the museum where she serves as a curator, with "a considerable horological department, a world-famous collection of clocks and watches, automata and other wind-up engines," a place where "for years I thought clockmaking must still any turmoil in one's breast. I was so confident of my opinion, so completely wrong." To keep protagonist and occasional narrator Catherine from going haywire, her supervisor assigns her an archival task: to study the diaries of a man who had commissioned a mechanical duck for his ailing son more than a century earlier. Some chapters are all Catherine, some are from the diaries of Henry and his adventures with the mechanical duck, and some mix the two, though the reader must make leaps of conjecture to connect the writing of Henry and the response from Catherine. Then the plot thickens, as it appears that the circumstances surrounding her affair were more complicated than Catherine had realized, and she comes to suspect that the pages she reads were written specifically for her: "He anticipated someone would watch him through the wormhole, that was clear. He wrote for that person." While reading about the attempts to construct a mechanical duck that would appear animated, practically alive, Catherine feels herself turning into a machine: "Ingest, I thought, digest, excrete, repeat." For what it's worth, the thematic key would seem to be a Latin epigram, which translates, "You cannot see what you can see." It's a novel that will amuse or challenge some and frustrate others.
In an interview a few years ago, Carey spoke of admiring the quality of "risk" in works of fiction. This, I think, is exactly right, risk being an index of a book's and a writer's ambition. The Chemistry of Tears takes risks, is quietly ambitious and is, in its last pages, both touching and thought-provoking.
The New York Times Book Review
“Dazzling . . . encompasses heartbreak, the comfort of absorbing work, the transformative power of beauty and the soul of an old machine. . . . part historical, part fanciful, and completely wonderful.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Ambitious, playful and engagingly strange.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Touching and thought-provoking.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Deeply moving. . . tells the story of the essential human desire to return to the individual Edens that we inhabited. . . . Beautifully told.” —Nature
“Characters that beguile and convince, prose that dances or is as careful as poetry, an inventive plot that teases and makes the heart quicken or hurt, paced with masterly precision, yet with a space for the ideas to breathe and expand in dialogue with the reader, unusual settings of place and time: this tender tour de force of the imagination succeeds on all fronts.” —The Independent (London)
“Carey is one of the finest living writers in English. His best books satisfy both intellectually and emotionally; he is lyrical yet never forgets the imperative to entertain. . . . A wholly enjoyable journey.” —The Economist
“Carey is one of the most original novelists writing today.” —The New Republic
“Vividly rendered. . . . Carey has given each story the chaotic quality of hallucination. . . . He shapes the two madnesses with imaginative intensity.” —The Boston Globe
“A beautifully written, richly layered novel that includes treats like a meaningful, hidden message in Latin and a mysterious blue wooden block hidden inside the automaton. . . . Its graceful subtlety will keep you thinking long after you've closed the book.” —Vancouver Sun
“A short novel that bristles with ideas. . . . Carey is a master novelist.” —The Oregonian
“Heartbreaking. . . . [A] profoundly detailed study of love and grief. . . . Carey has built us a captivating replica of the most timeless piece of machinery of all—a broken heart.” —The Seattle Times
“Leave it to a protean virtuoso like Peter Carey to write a novel, The Chemistry of Tears, that draws compelling parallels between a Victorian-era automaton of a defecating duck and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And, what’s more, to make of it another delightfully recondite tour-de-force performance.” —The Toronto Star
“For his new, briskly paced novel, The Chemistry of Tears, he has pulled off a nifty trick, offering interconnected plots set in two distinct eras. . . . Carey’s deft, spare prose is full of striking images. . . . Carey explores a series of interconnected themes that are admirably complex for such a short book.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A writer of such sustained flair that he has, only two years after his Man Booker–shortlisted Parrot and Olivier in America, delivered another stylish tour de force. . . . With typical dogged panache, Carey’s exploration of technology and tears indicates that emotion defies rationalism’s impositions.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)