Book review: The Chemistry of Tears

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The Chemistry of Tears
Peter Carey (Faber and Faber, £17.99, *£14.99)

One April afternoon, horological conservator Catherine Gehrig arrives at the (fictional) Swinburne Museum to discover that her married lover, curator Matthew, has died. Their affair has been a secret for 13 years, so she’s forced to mourn him in private, drowning her grief in cornershop vodka. A well-meaning colleague tasks her with a project-a mysterious 19th-century automaton that needs to be pieced back together, together with a series of accompanying notebooks. Through these, Catherine meets their author, Henry Brandling, a doting father who dreams of a gigantic toy that will prove diverting enough to magically restore his consumptive son to health.

Peter Carey is best known for Technicolour historical picar-esques such as Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang, both of which won him the Booker Prize. The Chemistry of Tears is every bit as vivid and well-populated a read as these. Although its author lives full-time in New York, London is faithfully reproduced in all its drizzly glory-apart from one logistically impossible Tube journey (the only way you could leave the Bakerloo Line at Marble Arch is by getting out a shovel and tunnelling your way to the surface), every detail rings brilliantly true. Likewise, Catherine and Henry, beating their fists against the unyielding wall of mortality 150 years apart, feel painfully real.

At its heart, this is a novel about fairytales-the ones we grow up with and the ones we tell ourselves. Henry, alone in the Black Forest with a deranged inventor straight out of the Brothers Grimm, clings desperately to the hope of a happily ever after, although he knows deep down that his son is dying. Even the astringently rational Catherine finds herself trying to bend the laws of Nature, opening Matthew’s final email to her (‘I kiss your toes’) over and over again, and marking it unread each time. On love, the loss of it and the possibility of a future, the two of them have much to say, but definitive answers come there none-Mr Carey is far too subtle a writer to suggest that there’s an instruction manual for the human machine.

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