Monday, October 29, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears

The Chemistry of Tears is a novel about two people with unquiet minds, in very quiet places. It is 2010, and just as the oil from the Gulf of Mexico environmental disaster is beginning to spread across the surface of the water, Catherine Gehrig, horologist, is faced with a personal catastrophe of a comparable scale. She has just learned that her lover of 13 years is dead.

Her supervisor at the Swinburne Museum, a pretty self-satisfied and manipulative individual, sets her the task of restoring an unusual object. (The nature of the object itself ought to be discovered through a reading of the book, and there are no spoilers here.) Among the items provided to her in a series of tea chests is a collection of notebooks, giving Gehrig a jealously guarded entry into the life of Henry Brandling.

In 1854, Brandling left England in search of something so mesmerising that it would distract his consumptive son from his illness. His travels took him to a small town in Germany, and the workshop of the mysterious Herr Sumper. Brandling is forced to submit to Sumper’s strange tales of his past adventures, and begins to doubt that his work is even being done.

Peter Carey unspools these two stories in tandem. We come slowly closer to the marvellous thing at the end of both trajectories, from two different directions. As Brandling stumbles and bumbles his way through life in his German village, impatiently awaiting the completion of the project, Gehrig catalogues and pieces together this very work of art, in all its extraordinary complexity. And as the novel progresses, it is apparent that Catherine and Henry have more in common than it initially appeared. Both are subject to the whim of others, and frustrated by this intrusion. Both are hindered to varying degrees by those ostensibly sent to assist them. Both are wracked with anguish and longing for a precious person who they cannot be with.

‘There was no one I dared turn to. I thought, I will work. It was what I had always done in crisis. It is what clocks were good for, their intricacy, their peculiar puzzles.’

This is another absorbing novel from Peter Carey. Of the two stories being told, it is Catherine Gehrig’s which is the more compelling and believable. This is achieved in part by her unusual position, in which she is both character and critic: she can sit in judgement on the decisions made by Henry Brandling more than 150 years earlier. Her particular professional knowledge also enables her to interpret signals and clues missed by Brandling.

Carey examines with utmost care the power of an object, especially one so elaborate and fantastic as this, to distract, to calm, and to resolve. The Chemistry of Tears is a reminder of the great value of a thing made with the hands, the heart and the mind, over a period of time. 

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.