For his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey takes as his inspiration Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, and a particular automaton, a mechanical marvel by John Joseph Merlin that is on display at the Bowes Museum. Carey then takes down from the shelf his secret recipe: one part fabulist fancy, one part earthy larrikin humour, one part Conradian nightmare, one part bittersweet tragedy. He shuffles his personal tarot pack of characters: the naïve dreamer, the trickster, the holy fool, the brute, the mad woman, the damaged exile, the child redeemer, the agent of destruction. Once again, Carey the alchemist takes his base materials and produces something rare and prized.
It’s 2010. Catherine’s beloved, a man called Matthew, has just died. She can’t grieve openly because Matthew was married with children and also her colleague at London’s Swinburne Museum, where Catherine is a conservator specialising in horology. She needs to bury herself in her work, and the Head Curator of Horology presents her with the means: several tea chests containing the remains of an automaton and the diaries of the man who commissioned it, Henry Brandling.
You might think that a novel about a grieving woman would be unbearably sad or depressing, but Carey sets a puzzle before Catherine and the reader, and we willingly follow the second narrator, Henry Brandling, into the Black Forest of Germany in the nineteenth century to solve it. Henry is a prisoner to a kind of Rumpelstiltskin, an artisan called Sumper, and we grapple with his nature. Is Sumper a genius, a charlatan, a thug or a fool? What is he really up to, and will Henry save his fragile son through the automaton?
You could say that Peter Carey has returned to the themes of My Life as a Fake, which played with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but in a sense the same themes recur in all Carey’s novels. Carey relishes a folly born of love, hubris and sweaty desperation. In the Chemistry of Tears, technological and creative ambition sow the seeds of our own destruction (think of Oscar and Lucinda and their fatal glass church, or Tobias Oates stealing from a convict in Jack Maggs). This time, however, Carey points not to the past devastation wrought by colonialism, but to an apocalypse brewing right now.
There’s always what I call the Conrad moment in a Peter Carey novel — a waking nightmare in a wild place — be it in the Australian bush (Oscar and Lucinda), the dark alleys of Victorian London (Jack Maggs), the rain forests of Queensland (His Illegal Self), the Malaysian jungle (My Life as a Fake), or the Black Forest (The Chemistry of Tears). In the Conrad moment, the protagonist must come face to face with human savagery and paranoia, including his or her own Heart of Darkness. Henry faces his Conrad moment in the forest; Catherine faces hers in a much more prosaic location.
The Chemistry of Tears is about madness in various forms: the madness of grief, of creative ambition, of expecting technology to bring salvation, of trying to find prophecy in chaos. It has a sense of hope and wonder, however, and flashes of the humour that lit up other Carey novels such as Theft and Parrot and Olivier in America.
I devoured The Chemistry of Tears in a day. My only reservation about The Chemistry of Tears — and I am reluctant to express one when the author’s body of work leaves me awestruck — is that the novel’s ending leaves one strand of the story unresolved. Although Carey keeps us on tenterhooks, upping the ante in Catherine’s life and Henry’s, I grew impatient with Sumper’s delays and mysticism and wanted a more definitive resolution. I find, however, that the novel is now following me around and the characters keep dropping in to visit. Only time will tell if this becomes one of my favourite Peter Carey novels, taking a place alongside Oscar and Lucinda, Jack Maggs, Theft and Bliss.