This is my review of The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey.
Employed as a conservator at a London museum with a world-famous collection of clocks and wind-up machines, blue-stocking Catherine is grief-stricken over the death of her work colleague and not-so-secret lover Matthew. Her manipulative line manager Eric tries to distract her with the task of reassembling what seems to be a mechanical duck, commissioned in the 1850s by the wealthy (when he is allowed access to the family money) Henry Brandling, who is convinced the "automaton" will aid the recovery of his sickly son. Catherine becomes totally absorbed in the handwritten journals kept by the eccentric Henry on his lengthy trip to Germany to obtain the duck.
The "Catherine chapters" held my attention from the outset. I liked the acerbic take on Barbara Pym "voice", and the very convincing and often moving portrayal of how Catherine is devastated by loss which Carey manages to convey alongside some very entertaining scenes.
The Henry chapters were a different matter. I accept that he may be bordering on insane, and encounters some even nuttier people, in particular the automaton-maker Sumper with his for me tedious accounts of the perhaps even more eccentric designer of such machines, Cruickshank. These chapters have a dreamlike quality, verging at times on nightmare, and Henry's account is often fragmented and lacking in context.
I would have been totally at sea without Google to explain the Victorian obsession with automata, and the various references to smoking monkeys and Vaucanson's "Digesting Duck" plus the Silver Swan on view at Bowes Museum, all of which clearly inspired this novel.
I think Carey is exploring the incongruity, for atheists and rationalists, of how grief is expressed through the chemical reactions of, say, shedding tears, while a cleverly made robotic machine may arouse fear and confusion with "its uncanny lifelike movements". An added twist is how machines, especially the combustion engine, have transformed our lives but may lead to our destruction by pollution – including this aspect as well may be over-ambitious.
Only the relative shortness of this book, Carey's status as a twice Man Booker Prize Winner, and my admiration for his recent "Parrot and Olivier in America" gave me the incentive to persevere. I agree that the ending proves rather abrupt, plus for me it includes a couple of implausible twists which I found hard to take.
I can see why some reviewers have found the novel pretentious. I'm inclined to think that Carey simply lets his imagination roam free, his fame relieving him of any need to kowtow to agents or editors. He makes no concessions to readers, leaving us to extract the brilliant writing and sharp insights from the at times confusing morass.
It was only on reflection after finishing the book that I decided the choice of ending is quite effective, and that overall it is worth reading.