Magazine article The Spectator

Picking Up the Pieces

Magazine article The Spectator

Picking Up the Pieces

Article excerpt

The Chemistry of Tears

by Peter Carey

Faber, £17.99, pp. 271,

ISBN 9780571279975

'The World of Interiors' might have been a better title for this novel. Its two chief protagonists, Catherine Gehrig and Henry Brandling, live a century and a half apart, but both are beset by circumstances that make them physically isolated and emotionally stunted. They rail in furious misery, and are sunk in interior communing.

Commodities matter to them: they are materialists gift-wrapped as aesthetes. Gehrig muses on 'the huge peace of metal things', appreciates Clarice Cliff tea-cups, arrays with austere elegance the tools of her work, 'pliers, cutters, piercing saw, files, hammer, antimagnetic tweezers, brass and steel wire, taps and dies, pin vice.'

Alone in his bedroom, Brandling is consoled by his neatly-sorted possessions: 'My cuff-links, my compass, the enamelled miniature of my son, the pack of cards, my pens, sovereign case, and all the little accoutrements of life'. Theirs are the aesthetics of terminal frustration.

Gehrig is in her late forties and a horology conservator in a Knightsbridge museum when the married colleague who has been her secret lover for 13 years dies abruptly. She plunges into lonely grief. A curator who knows of the affair puts her in emotional quarantine in the museum's workshops and sets her to work reassembling an outlandish and unique object, an automaton dating from 1854. She feels eviscerated by mourning, stumbles in an angry daze of vodka and sedatives, puts her clocks in the refrigerator to stop time.

The automaton had been commissioned in the form of an elaborate mechanical duck by Henry Brandling, the Old Harrovian dunderhead son of a railway millionaire.

Making a discreet flight from a loveless marriage (and a cluttered home decorated with the taste of a parvenu brewer's daughter), he goes to Germany to acquire the toy for his beloved only child, whom he fears has tuberculosis.

Brandling's moods at Karlsruhe and Furtwangen obsess Gehrig after she finds his notebooks packed up with the disassembled automaton parts. Like Carey's other recent novels, His Illegal Self and Parrot and Olivier in America, in which the narratives zip along from dual standpoints, The Chemistry of Tears has two alternating voices, with Gehrig and Brandling narrating chapters in turn.

Gehrig as a bereaved woman, and Brandling as a cuckold who is scared that his adored child is mortally ill, are figures of sympathy who dissipate their good will. …

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