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Peter Carey: The Chemistry of Tears

It is sad when a very fine author seems to lose his touch and produces books which are frankly not up to the standard of his earlier ones. I think that we now have to accept that Peter Carey has joined this not very happy club as his recent books really have not been very good. This one certainly is not. A good novel, it seems to me, should have three things going for it – a good plot, interesting characters and enthralling ideas. This one has none of the three. The plot can be summed up as follows: Victorian man wants to get a mechanical duck for his son. He does. Contemporary woman wants to put it back together and make it work. She does. Oh, and it’s not a duck but a swan. Obviously an over-simplification but that is it in a nutshell. As for the characters, they should be interesting, we should identify with one or more of them or, if we do not, we should be concerned about what happens to them and what they are doing. The characters in this book are not interesting, they are not sympathetic and, frankly, we do not really care what happens to them. Finally, as regards ideas, this could have been an interesting book on technology, particularly a comparison between Victorian and contemporary views of technology. It is not. Apart from a hint as to the precursor of the internal combustion engine, which occurs four pages before the end and is not pursued, it is all rather mundane.

There are two main characters. Catherine Gehrig lives in the present. She is a conservator for the Swinburne Museum (clearly based on the V&A), specialising in horology, a skill she learned from her father. She has worked there for some time and, during most of her time there, has been having an affair with Matthew Tindall, Head Curator of Metals. As he is married with children, the affair is, as far as she knows, secret. The novel start with his unexpected death, a heart attack on the tube on the way to work one morning. She finds out only when she sees, by chance, Matthew’s assistant crying. Obviously, Catherine cannot show her grief nor can she go to the funeral. Fortunately for her someone else does know about the affair, her boss, Eric Croft. He is very sympathetic. He grants her sick leave and gives her a special project to work on, which will require her to work in the Museum Annex, in Olympia, well away from the main building, where she can be relatively alone. The project is stored in eight tea chests and is an automaton in the form of a duck (it later turns out to be a swan) which she needs to dismantle, catalogue, clean, repair and reassemble. This is the sort of task she loves doing. The owner of the duck/swan, Henry Brandling, a wealthy Victorian man, conveniently left detailed diaries of his acquisition of the duck/swan. As a result, through Catherine’s reading, we follow the story of Henry Brandling and the duck/swan at the same time as we follow Catherine’s project to rebuild the duck, while she deals with her grief.

Henry had two children. The first, Alice, died of a bronchial condition, and the second, Percy, was not in good health. To entertain Percy, father and son had been reading The Illustrated London News, where they had seen the drawings for Vaucanson’s duck. In a rash moment, Henry promises Henry that he will have one made and sets out to Germany, confident, as his smarter brother has told him so, that everyone except for the peasants, speaks fluent English. They don’t. He goes to Karlsruhe, where he feels, as it is the centre of the clock-making industry in the Black Forest, he is sure to find someone who can build his duck. He goes into a random clock shop where he finds that the owner, naturally, does not speak English and is not really able to help when they get an interpreter (the local policeman). But he soon finds or, rather, is found by Herr Sumper, who speaks fluent English, Frau Helga, the chambermaid in the hotel where he is staying, and her son Carl. The three quickly take him hand and transport him to a remote village where he is not sure whether is he being tricked or he is going to get his duck, not least because Sumper is secretive in what he is doing but quite aggressive in his conversations with Henry. Sumper is a clock maker and had worked in London for a clock-maker, which is why he speaks such good English. A good part of the novel is taken up with Henry’s stay in Germany and wondering what is going on. As Sumper is unpleasant and Henry seems remarkably naïve, the whole episode does not really work, not least as we do not really care what happens to either of them or the duck.

Meanwhile, Catherine is grieving. She consoles herself with drink – a bottle of vodka every night. This does not help her with the task in hand. Things are made worse when she is given an assistant, who may or may not be somewhat autistic, whom she soon comes to resent, not least because she thinks the assistant, Amanda Snyde, is a spy for Eric Croft. Catherine also hacks into Matthew’s Swinburne email account, primarily to delete any compromising emails. As she ignores all standard procedures regarding the notebooks and components of the duck, which she soon recognises is, in fact, a swan, she is clearly putting her career at risk. With the emails, the internal combustion engine, Amanda’s autism and some of Henry’s adventures in Germany, Carey sets up situations which are then dropped without explanation. Indeed, overall, the book is a disappointment and it is very sad that a man of Carey’s talent and track record should produce such a book.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Faber and Faber