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Review: Fiction: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Peter Carey's 12th novel opens brilliantly, as one would expect from a writer who has twice won the Booker Prize. The first sentence, "Dead, and no one told me", brings us straight into the heart of the action -- but it also reminds the alert reader of a famous line from a Victorian melodrama: "Dead, and never called me mother".

This melodrama starts on an April day in 2010 when Catherine Gehrig, a conservation expert, comes into work at the (fictional) Swinburne museum in London to be told that a colleague, Matthew, has hurt his head.

She has misheard: Matthew, a married man who has been her secret lover for 13 years, is dead. She bursts into his office, grabs his tweed hat off a shelf, rushes down into the main hall, then to her studio, then to the cafeteria where she meets her boss and starts howling with grief.

The boss, Eric Croft, knows her secret and is kind to her.

To take her mind off Matthew he gives her a new, very interesting project: the restoration of a huge mechanical swan.

By the end of the story Catherine has gone mad on drink and drugs (cocaine), excited Eric sexually (though he is gay), had her face scratched by an assistant curator, and discovered that inside the swan there is another machine, a secret one that has taken over the world -- without giving the game away, think Mercedes Benz . . .

This is one part of a story that's as ingenious as any piece of clockwork. The other part, based on notebooks discovered by Catherine in the packing case that holds the swan, is the deliberately unlikely tale of an Englishman, Henry Brandling.

In 1854 Brandling goes to Germany to get the swan made as a toy for his son who is dying of TB.

Would a loving father do that in real life? Of course not, but it's the sort of thing that happens in fairytales, which this part of the book is. Carey evokes the Brothers Grimm atmosphere of the Black Forest with extraordinary skill.

But occasionally, it has to be said, he makes mistakes: at one point Brandling refers to Kroptokin, the Russian anarchist who in 1854 was all of 12 years old. Again, though, Carey may be leading us up the garden path deliberately -- there's a lot of rib-tickling falsity in this book.

And a lot of fascinating information too. The reader, like the reviewer, will be entertained and educated by Googling proper names in the text.

Carey's swan, for instance, is inspired by a famous mechanical duck made in France by Jacques Vaucanson in the 18th Century. The duck could flap its wings, eat and defecate -- for the latter purpose Vaucanson invented the world's first flexible rubber tube.

The information is imparted painlessly and with enormous ingenuity. It's enlivened by flashes of illuminating description and comedy -- Carey has learned a good deal from Flann O'Brien's insight that policemen can become their bicycles.

There is also an enticing sharpness in the language: for instance, "the turnstile pivoted at the centre of its ungiving heart" is the sort of idea that only a devoted writer could come up with. Elsewhere, Brandling describes himself as being "hungry as a tank of acid".

And there are satisfyingly odd bits of character description: Catherine, for example, "off her face with rage and cognac", sobers up and discovers that she has put three of her clocks into the fridge -- a great horological sin.

The problem with the book -- and it's been a real problem with Carey for some time now -- is that even as one is impressed by the niftiness of the writing and the storytelling, one wonders what they are being done for.

I suspect that the author is aware of the difficulty: The Chemistry of Tears can be read as a fable about the value of being a novelist.

On the one hand, Carey presents us with a world that is often horrible, almost sexually disgusting: time and again he reminds us of the unstoppable BP oil well spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.

On the other hand he creates from this raw material a beautifully made, entertaining and comic machine -- he turns an ugly duckling into a swan. But, as Catherine says in the last paragraph of the book, "Machines cannot feel . . . Souls have no chemistry, and time cannot end."

All that's missing here is the emotion. One awaits Carey's next novel to see how he meets his own challenge.

Were this one to win the Booker -- and it is more than possible -- he would become the first writer to win the prize three times.

Brian Lynch is an author, poet and member of Aosdána

Indo Review