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Of machines and emotions
The Chemistry of Tears is nowhere near Peter Carey's best. However, this reveals nothing, Carey being a literary artist whose skills, insight and language have won him acclaim worldwide. Surpassing Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang - his two Bookerwinning efforts - cannot be an everyday reality for anybody. And that includes Carey.
The Chemistry of Tears has two voices, the first of which belongs to Catherine Gehrig, an alcoholic, pill-popping, horologist employed with the Swinburne Museum in London. Incidentally, Swinburne Museum is a fictional creation. The second voice is that of Henry Brandling, an affluent 19th century Englishman who gets acquainted to us through the notebooks he has left behind.
An "oddly elegant woman with the tweed hat scrunched up in her hand", Catherine had been involved in a passionate affair with Matthew Tindall, a married colleague, for 13 years. The book begins with Tindall's sudden death. His last email to her reads, 'I kiss your toes, ' which she marks as unread. As emotional turmoil overwhelms Catherine, more so because she cannot express her grief socially, her boss who is aware of the affair endeavours to bail her out. Since Catherine specializes in clocks and automatons, he gives her an assignment whose challenging complexity she cannot resist. Catherine figures out that the mystery package from her boss is an automaton - a duck that simulates real-life qualities - that Brandling, the rich Englishman, had set out to procure in order to cheer up his ailing son more than a century ago.
Carey discusses aspects such as procedure meetings and hierarchies with the ease of somebody who has immersed himself in the quest for understanding the workings of the sort of museum he has written about. Hardly surprising, therefore, is that the book's best moments are those in which Catherine is engrossed in comprehending the intriguing task at hand. But he loses control over the proceedings when the horologist struggles with the memories of her relationship. Her emotional outbursts border on the melodramatic, mainly because of how little we know about her affair. Since Carey deals with the relationship with astonishing indifference, one fails to respect, and feel for, her despair.
Among the two principal characters, Brandling is a lot more likeable. An emotional father who wishes to see his son smile, he goes off to Germany to get the duck from the best creators in the world. He comes across various characters, among them one gawky, huge and potentially dangerous man named Sumper who doesn't seem to be interested in such a trivial project. The interactions between Sumper and Brandling make for engaging reading, although the most charming part is definitely that in which Brandling's actual acquisition is finally reconstructed.
The book has several engaging qualities. The character of Cruikshank, an inventor whom Sumper claims to have assisted, has been inspired by the legendary Charles Babbage. During his journey, Brandling comes across a collector of fairy tales, which is reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm. Nineteenth century Germany is portrayed remarkably, as is London of today.
The protagonists who are separated by more than a century are dealing with a common feeling: that of heartache. Brandling is afraid of losing his son before he gets his father's gift. Catherine, on the other hand, is dealing with the tragedy of her lover's death. That Carey is unable to exploit the possibilities of this non-mechanistic, potentially powerful, situation is his major failure.
The book challenges and enamours with its details. Yet, at one point, Carey writes that humans are also "intricate chemical machines". It is the author's obsession with this perspective which, despite being true, makes one wonder why he had to call his book, The Chemistry of Tears.
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