Already twice a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, Peter Carey now offers his readers The Chemistry of Tears, a complexly constructed study of grief and self-identity set in contemporary London. Despite its modern-day setting (2010), however, the novel can also legitimately be called historical fiction as much of its story is lifted directly from the pages of a nineteenth century Englishman’s personal diary.
Catherine Gehrig is a conservator at the Swinburne Museum whose thirteen-year affair with a married colleague is still a mostly well-kept secret. As far as she knows, no one at the museum suspects that she and Matthew Tindall, one of the museum’s head curators, have a relationship of that sort. Their secret is so successfully kept, in fact, that when Matthew dies suddenly, Catherine is among the last of the museum employees to get the news. Now, her whole world in turmoil, she must pretend that she has not been emotionally crippled by her devastating grief.
Fortunately for Catherine, her boss - the one man who now seems to have been aware of the affair – places her on immediate sick leave before transferring her to a more isolated museum annex to work on the unusual project he has chosen for her. There Catherine finds eight boxes filled with the diagrams and mechanical parts needed to restore and assemble what appears to be a160-year-old duck automation. It is when she discovers a series of notebooks relating to the origin of the automation that Catherine becomes obsessed with her new assignment.
Carey will, from this point, alternate accounts of Catherine’s life with pages taken from the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Englishman who originally commissioned the amazing automation she is working to reconstruct. Brandling, a man completely devoted to his sickly young son, hopes that the boy will be so taken with the mechanical duck that he will somehow find the will to conquer the disease that is slowly killing him. Brandling’s willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his son alive brings him to a tiny German village where he falls into the hands of a strange clockmaker who will drive him closer and closer to despair.
The Chemistry of Tears tackles complex human emotions, emotions that probably have to be personally experienced for one to comprehend their full impact on the human psyche. Catherine’s entire identity, the person she believed herself to be, was defined by her affair with Matthew Tindall. When Matthew died, the old Catherine Gehrig died with him, and now she is working just as hard to reconstruct a self-identity for herself as she is on rebuilding the antique mechanical duck. Whether or not she can succeed with either project is the question.
The Chemistry of Tears is a moving novel, one that will especially speak to those readers who have suffered a level of grief similar to Catherine’s. While it is not a long novel, it does suffer a bit from an overabundance of mysterious side plots pertaining to the tribulations suffered by the automation’s original owner. Readers, however, should not be overly discouraged by this because The Chemistry of Tears is well worth the effort required – and each of the side plots contributes to the book’s atmosphere or depth of the Henry Brandling character.