February 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Chemistry of Tears' By Peter Carey

By Jennifer Byrne

In the peaty depths of Germany’s Black Forest, nineteenth-century English gentleman Henry Brandling commissions a giant clockwork automaton so wondrous, so eerily lifelike, that he believes the very sight of it will restore his beloved young son to health and spirits. Nearly two centuries later, it lies in pieces in a small London museum where conservator Catherine Gehrig, reeling after the sudden death of her colleague and secret married lover, is given the job of re-building it.

Reluctantly, furiously – she would rather drink and cry herself to oblivion – Catherine digs in. She finds delicate steel rings and chains and glass rods, the makings of a beautiful mechanical bird. She also finds Brandling’s diary, in which she recognises a soul as lost and grief-maddened as her own.

Many tears fall in Peter Carey’s latest novel, streaming from the eyes of this couple who never meet but become companions of a kind: he desperate to avoid a devastating loss, she struggling to survive one. We meet her in shock, bouncing between trance and fury as she travels through a strangely stormy London to delete her lover’s thousand emails, one by one. The last, unopened before his death: “I kiss your toes.” Henry is a man looking for a miracle – and does not a machine that mimics life fit the bill? Brilliant enough to distract not just a sick child, but death itself?

It is a mechanical duck he orders, designed by a Frenchman, though he must travel to Germany (as ever, Carey does not stint with a rollicking traveller’s tale) to find his master clockmakers. But they are strange and secretive men, not easily commanded, and the mechanical marvel Catherine is persuaded to reassemble at the museum is a very different bird, with a mystery at its core. You cannot see what you can see is written in Latin on its silver beak.

The diaries, too – secreted in her flat with the vodka – start to slip focus: from the certainties of science and clocks to the awe-filled wonders of the universe, the unacceptability of truth, the persistence of human error. As Henry slips away from reality, Catherine returns to it, the last woman in London to notice the headlines about the Mexico oil spill, the hot wind blowing rubbish through the streets.

A bigger story, then. They’re calling it Carey’s global warming novel but it would spoil the fun – and subtlety – to reveal the secret of the bird, which may carry the seed of mankind’s destruction. Science does what it must; humans comprehend what they can. Carey makes this clear but leaves the reader to ponder the consequences while savouring a frisky, imaginative account of two companion souls grappling with love, grief and the possibility of magic.

Jennifer Byrne
Jennifer Byrne is an award-winning journalist and a former reporter for 60 Minutes. She currently hosts the First Tuesday Book Club, is a regular panellist on The 7PM Project and a presenter on ABC News Radio.

'The Chemistry of Tears', By Peter Carey, Penguin, 288pp; $39.95
February 2012

February 2012

From the front page

The NBN-ding story

New developments in the interminable debate over broadband in Australia

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

Penthouse magazine cover Aug 1993

Tasteful sexuality

An oral history of the Warwick & Joanne Capper ‘Penthouse’ shoot

Rhetoric vs reality

The government has no agenda for addressing the worsening economy


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Fred Schepisi & Vladimir Putin

Scott Morrison standing up for God's Country, May 2011. © AAP IMAGE / Alan Porritt

Scott Morrison: So Who the Bloody Hell Are You?

'Outland' by Kevin Carlin (director), ABC1, 6-part series, from 8 February

'Outland' by Kevin Carlin

The Greens party room, December 2011. © Australian Greens

The Australian Greens Party

Divided We Fall


More in Noted

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

‘Act og Grace’ cover

‘Act of Grace’ by Anna Krien

The journalist’s propulsive debut novel tackles the aftermath of the Iraq War

‘Here Until August’

‘Here Until August’ by Josephine Rowe

The Australian author’s second short-story collection focuses on the precipice of change rather than its culmination

Image of ‘The Godmother’

‘The Godmother’ by Hannelore Cayre

A sardonic French bestseller about a godmother, in the organised crime sense of the word


Read on

Image from ‘Judy’

Clang, clang, clang: ‘Judy’

The Judy Garland biopic confuses humiliation for homage

Image of Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese

Climate of blame

Labor runs the risk of putting expediency over principle

Afterwards, nothing is the same: Shirley Hazzard

On the splendour of the acclaimed author’s distinctly antipodean seeing

We will not be complete

The time for convenient denial of Australia’s brutal history is past


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