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TBTS Reviews: The Chemistry of Tears

July 31, 2012

Ever had the experience of passing some great landmark all the time without recognizing it for what it is? You might drive past some elegant building on a daily basis, never knowing what it is until someone tells you Frank Lloyd Wright designed it and your perceptions of it change. I have this experience all the time with books. Maybe it’s the result from having to see books as product, objects to be organized in a certain way. Every name in contemporary fiction is laid out before you and you don’t recognize most of them. Even the prize-winners don’t stand out that much. You see the silver or gold seals on the covers, you know the names of the awards – Pulitzer, National Book, National Book Critics Circle, PEN/Faulkner, Man Booker, Orange – but you can’t keep straight who won what and when. Too much to keep track of, too many shells on this beach. It’s the opposite problem of not having any idea what to read next – you have all the options in the world and only so many chances to use them. You neglect great stuff because you simply can’t do otherwise.

But sometimes a name keeps coming back to you. Something catches your eye, someone directs your attention, and you find yourself with something by an author whose name you’ve seen a thousand times, finally about to give him or her a chance. So it is with me and Peter Carey, at long last. After reading The Chemistry of Tears, I couldn’t tell you what took me so long.

The Chemistry of Tears is a highly nuanced, artfully told story that divides itself between present-day London and 1850s Germany, linked by a nineteenth-century automaton. Catherine Gehrig, horologist, museum conservator, has just lost her longtime colleague and secret lover Matthew. Her boss, Eric Croft, the only person who knew of the affair, arranges for her to work in isolation restoring the automaton, which leads her to the journals of Henry Brandling, who commissioned the automaton as a gift for his frail son Percy. As Catherine, reeling with loss, gets deeper into Henry’s journals, a complex relationship develops between her and her subject – and between her and her boss.

At this point in his career, with twelve novels and a shelf of awards (two Bookers!) Carey has by now established himself as a master. Again and again while reading The Chemistry of Tears I found myself wondering why I hadn’t paid attention to him sooner. His prose is precise and agile, well-tuned and capable of both great complexity and high-resolution clarity at once.

My German grandfather and my very English father were clockmakers, nothing too spectacular – first Clerkenwell, then the city, then Clerkenwell again – mostly good solid English five-wheel clocks – but it was an item of faith for me, even as a little girl, that this was a very soothing, satisfying occupation. For years I thought clockmaking must still any turmoil in one’s breast. I was so confident of my opinion, so completely wrong.

The tea lady provided her depressive offering. I observed the anticlockwise motion of the slightly curdled milk, just waiting for him, I suppose. So when a hand did touch me, my whole body came unstitched. It felt like Matthew, but Matthew was dead, and in his place was Eric Croft, the Head Curator of Horology. I began to howl and could not stop.

He was the worst possible witness in the world.

Peter Carey is a writer with a lot to say. Everywhere you look in The Chemistry of Tears you’ll find a keen observation or a sharp insight. Carey goes to places you wouldn’t think would be accessible given where he starts, but Carey has skills well beyond the abilities of most. Carey explores the depth and texture of love and grief, the mystery of life and death, and the human drive toward invention and destruction with grace and subtlety and precision. Carey has won the Booker Prize twice, and it’s not hard to see why. To read someone like Peter Carey is to see what literature is for.

I highly recommend The Chemistry of Tears, and now that I’ve discovered what was right in front of me for years, I’m going in deeper. I have it on good authority that Oscar & Lucinda is the next logical stop. I’ll send postcards when I get there.


New in paperback this month is Dana Spiotta’s excellent rock & roll novel Stone Arabia, a wholly original exploration of the life of a reclusive rock genius as told through the journals of his sister. Imagine if Lou Reed had disappeared into his own head sometime after Transformer, and you’ve got an idea. Well worth your time.

Also new in paperback this month is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, both reviewed in this column last year.


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