Friday book review – The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Friday 4th May 2012

Peter Carey is a writer’s writer. He has won the Booker Prize twice and combines beautifully written prose with originality and emotional complexity.

That’s my opinion, anyway. Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, has received mixed reviews, but I loved it.

The story begins in London, on a blisteringly hot spring day in 2010. Catherine Gehrig, a museum conservator and horologist, has just received devastating news. Her married lover, the man she’s adored for 13 years, has dropped dead from a heart attack on the tube.

The clandestine nature of their affair means Catherine must grieve by herself and can’t even go to his funeral. The added irony is that while her job is all about intricacy and precision, in private she’s a complete mess. She drinks too much, takes too many pills and becomes ever so slightly unhinged.

Worried by the fragile state she’s in, Catherine’s boss gives her a secret project. He asks her to reconstruct an extraordinary clockwork duck commissioned by a 19th century Englishman as a “magical amusement” for his frail, consumptive son.

Even though she’s grief-stricken, Catherine becomes obsessed with the quest to rebuild the mechanical bird – and keen to discover why the child’s father went to such lengths to keep his promise to his son. Along the way, she starts to reflect on the mysteries of life and death and how the miracles of human invention often go catastrophically awry.

Set 150 years apart, these are the two intertwining strands at the heart of The Chemistry of Tears. A tender novel of secrets, love, grief and heartache, it’s ingenious, thought provoking and gloriously eccentric.

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber, £17.99)

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