Extraordinary artefacts have always excited Peter Carey’s imagination: a fantastical glass-and-iron church towed along an Australian river in Oscar and Lucinda (with which he won the Booker prize in 1988), the steel-plated suits with turret-like helmets worn as armour by Victorian outlaws in True History of the Kelly Gang (with which he won the Booker again in 2001). At the centre of his new novel is another remarkable feat of metalwork: a fabulously intricate mechanical swan fashioned from silver and brass in the middle of the 19th century.
When first encountered in Carey’s story, the swan is a puzzling rubble of bits and pieces that Catherine Gehrig, a museum conservator whose speciality is clocks and clockwork, has been assigned to re-assemble. This commission is an act of kindness by her boss who is aware that she is privately racked with grief at the death of the married man who has secretly been her lover for 13 years. The restoration project, it’s hoped, will distract her from her misery and provide the solace of immersion in professional routine and expertise.
Suited to Catherine’s fascination with mechanical ingenuity, the task turns out to have aspects that relate to her bereaved plight as well. Journals unearthed alongside the dismantled swan reveal that it owes its existence to a distraught Victorian father, Henry Brandling. Pained by watching his sick young son undergoing futile hydrotherapy for consumption (which had already claimed his infant daughter), this decent but slightly hapless heir to a railway fortune journeyed out to Germany, Catherine learns, in search of someone able to manufacture a mechanical bird of a kind his child had set his heart on.
Intermeshing the narratives of a woman in 2010 London and a man visiting the Black Forest in 1854, The Chemistry of Tears – alive with the vivid evocation of place and period that is always Carey’s forte – juxtaposes love for a dead partner with love for a dying son. In both stories, the swan, marvellously simulating life as it preens its beautifully articulated neck and pounces on silver fish flickering around it, gives consolation and a sense of purpose to characters tormented by mortality.
Early in his travels, inspecting a music box resembling a merry-goround with horses and riders, Henry muses on “the queer facsimile of life, so dead and not-dead” that it makes the flesh creep. Frissons of this kind tingle through the novel. Simulations of life crowd it: a mechanical smiling monkey, a smoking Chinaman, a metal duck that seemingly digests food and defecates it, silver dancing girls, an 18in tin model of Christ that spins like a top and emits laughter, a robot called Kaykay employed in America to teach autistic children, and a Victorian prototype computer designed “to replace the pulp and fibre of the human brain with brass and steel”.
Carey achieves eerie effects with these objects that have variously impinged on Catherine and Henry, and heightens the eeriness by emphasising that human beings, ingenious constructors of mechanical replicas of life, are themselves chemical constructs. Talk of the “spiralled mechanism” of DNA, of “those intensely complicated factories, the tear glands” and of the skin’s “4m receptors” keeps narrowing the gap between the novel’s “automatons” and its humans. “My understanding was that she was 100% functional,” a character remarks of Catherine’s wobbly assistant, whose balance is maintained by medication.
Catherine grimly reminds herself that the desired body of her lover is now a kind of post-mortem manufactory “producing methane, carbon dioxide, rotten-egg gases, ammonia”.
Noxious emissions of other kinds thicken the book’s atmosphere. Humanity’s flair for mechanical invention, eye-catching instances of which engagingly cram his novel, has, Carey stresses, shown itself to be “bright and poisonous”. In the background to Catherine’s painstaking reconstruction of the glitteringly intricate swan during the hot April of 2010, globally alarming side-effects of industrialisation are apparent. Sultry weather weighs down on a sweltering London that is hotter than Bangkok. Traffic fumes choke the air. Seen on television news bulletins, the BP oil spill spreads its black stain across the Gulf of Mexico.
Damage done by mankind’s mechanical creativeness is highlighted in a novel by one of the present day’s most unconventionally creative writers. Oddball characters are propelled along zigzagging narrative channels, connections made with whimsical aplomb. As always, too, everything is burnished with vitalisingly poetic images. The Chemistry of Tears isn’t only about life and inventiveness: it overflows with them.
The Sunday Times (London) March 25, 2012 Sunday