THE CHEMISTRY OF TEARS
By Peter Carey
Knopf, $26, 229 pages
There is something mesmerizing about Peter Carey's novels. His latest work, "The Chemistry of Tears" is no exception. The tale of a grief-stricken horologist and her restoration of a 19th-century automaton is a tale of loss, loneliness and the magic of imagination and inspiration. It's a lovely book, not without humor, a story of wonder, sorrow and mechanical wizardry.
Catherine Gehrig, an "oddly elegant tall woman," daughter and granddaughter of clock-makers, is a skilled horologist on the staff of the Swinburne Museum, "one of London's almost-secret treasure houses. It had a considerable horological department, a world-famous collection of clocks and watches, automata and other wind-up engines." The employees were "museum people, scholars, priests, repairers, sand-paperers, scientists, plumbers, mechanics . . . with narrow specialties in metals and glass and textiles and ceramics."
Catherine "had grown up with the sound of clocks and they had been a comfort to [her], the whole orchestra of movements like the currents of the sea, an all-engulfing natural order."
As the story opens, Catherine learns that Matthew Tindall, the Head Curator of Metals, her colleague and married lover of 13 years, has died suddenly of a heart attack. She is devastated and sees her private world collapse.
Catherine's boss and only friend, Eric Croft, "the master of all that ticked and tocked . . . loved big emotions, grotesque effects, Sing-songs, the Opera." He knows about her love affair and assigns her a new, complicated project in an attempt to alleviate her sorrow. The task involves restoring a mid-nineteenth century mechanized swan which is in hundreds of tiny pieces.
Croft has assigned a beautiful young assistant to Catherine. Amanda Snyde is intelligent, quick to understand what is expected of her and, in Catherine's eyes, a spy for Croft. She seems to know all about Catherine. She makes beautiful drawings. They put the swan back together again. "Every eerie movement was smooth as a living thing, a snake, an eel, a swan of course. . . . [T]his swan was never, not for a moment, familiar, but uncanny, sinuous, lithe, supple, winding, graceful. As it twisted to look into one's eyes, its own stayed darkest ebony until, at that point when the sun caught the black wood, they blazed. It had no sense of touch. It had no brain. It was as glorious as God."
Along with the chest containing the pieces of the swan, are the notebooks of Henry Brandling, a wealthy Englishman who went to Germany in order to commission a mechanical duck that can "flap its wings, drink water, digest grain, and defecate," as an amusement for his ailing son. When Catherine discovers the notebooks, she is fascinated by Brandling's account of his time in Germany.
Catherine spends her days and nights weeping, drinking too much vodka, deleting her email correspondence with Matthew, and immersing herself in Henry Brandling's notebooks. Brandling goes to Furtwangen "with its lanes exceeding narrow and irregular, with its winding streets, its curious old buildings, its wood-carvings, and its profusion of old-fashioned metal-work," a clockmakers' village in the Black Forest where he falls into the hands of a giant peasant, Herr Sumper, and Carl, a beautiful crippled child with a talent for making mysterious moving objects. Brandling pays Sumper to make the duck he promised his son. Sumper tells Brandling wild stories of a time in England where he learned to make automata while working for a "genius" who had invented a machine that could gauge ocean currents and winds.
The place where Henry was living is mysterious like the landscape of a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale. "In the deep shadow between mill and dwelling everything was sour and damp. Piles of grey sawdust and freshly murdered logs sometimes blocked the path. Copper cables, like guy ropes, ran from the peak of the mill house to the surrounding earth at which point they were enclosed in wooden boxes." Although he is kept in the dark about the progress of his duck, ultimately, Brandling receives his "toy." It is not a duck but a swan.
Peter Carey is drawn to glass as a metaphor. In his earlier novel, "Oscar and Lucinda," it is a glass church that the protagonists transport on a long and dangerous journey upriver in Australia, only to see it crumble in the end. In "The Chemistry of Tears," numerous glass rods support the swan to give an appearance of water, but it is not real, regardless of how "real" the swan appears in its movements. Little Carl, like Oscar in the earlier book, is something of a misfit but both have the soul of an angel.
There are parallels within the novel itself as the two plots slowly merge: Catherine in the modern story, like Henry in the 19th century, is a nonconformist, a dreamer as well as a pragmatist. Tears flow easily from them both. Henry lost a baby daughter and has a small son who is ill; Catherine lost her beloved. They both found some comfort in the creation of a wondrous automaton. There is a mystical quality and wildness to Amanda, as there is in the Germans surrounding Henry as he waits for the completion of his "duck."
Mr. Carey does not tell us who Amanda really is. Nor do we know whether Sumper's tales are real or simply made-up stories. The relationship between Matthew's son and Amanda remains unexplored. Whether the Suffolk barn which served as a trysting place for Matthew and Catherine, now owned by Matthew's sons, becomes a boon or burden to her after the sons have given it to Catherine as a gift, is not discussed. Nor do we know whether Henry's child lived. It's not important, for "[w]ithout ambiguity you have Agatha Christie, a sort of aesthetic whodunit. But look at any Rothko. You can look and look but you never get past the vacillations and ambiguities of colour, and form, and surface."
Twice winner of the Booker prize, Peter Carey knows how to enchant his readers with his imaginative tale and understanding of human frailty and strength, as well as the technical skills that bring his swan to its eerie life.
• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.