Crying out for love and redemption
by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber)
Those who have been reading him for three decades now, since the strange and peculiar Illywhacker, will find that he does not disappoint in this new novel and is as eccentric and mesmerising as ever. Odd as he is and with his well-defined passions in full flow, he puts his finger on issues that concern us while setting them in contexts readers are unlikely ever to forget.
Among his passions is a love for arcane, esoteric fields of knowledge. In Illywhacker it was the weird animalia of Australia; in Oscar and Lucinda he examined faith and chance in religion and gambling and, of course, the workings of the extraordinary glass works that Lucinda decided to buy. In Parrot and Olivier in America readers were introduced to the medieval art of engraving and in the new novel Carey takes us into the world of horology and clockwork toys, the engineering of which led, he says, to the invention of the internal combustion engine that now powers all our road vehicles and for which oil is now required, and all that it implies for humanity.
Perhaps it is not fair to say Carey is odd, but certainly he loves to create odd protagonists who are both in this world and yet not really of it. In The Chemistry of Tears Carey takes us into two parallel narratives. First, the reader goes to a museum where a recently bereaved woman, Catherine, is given the job of rebuilding an extraordinary mechanical swan. The second story is revealed in notebook diaries or letters from a man to his son. The man, Henry, commissioned this "extreme" toy for a boy who is confined to bed with tuberculosis in an era when this was usually a fatal disease. Both Catherine Gehrig in the 21st century and Henry Brandling in the 19th have reason to grieve and both are somewhat comforted, or at least distracted, by the swan.
Another of Carey's great passions is the bond between parent and child with all its ramifications and implications, as well as the heartbreak of losing a child. Second to this, but part of it, is his love of children. This theme occurs often: for example, Oscar rejects his father's faith but emulates his faithfulness and devotion to duty; Ned Kelly's mother in The History of the Kelly Gang is close to the heart of her outlaw son; in His Illegal Self, Carey gives us the vulnerable yet steady Che. He always confers upon the young more intelligence and agency than most adults would allow.
And how he adores the young in this latest novel. Catherine is given an assistant to help to reconstruct the swan, a girl quite breathtakingly gorgeous in her youth and way too brilliant to be resisted; Brandling, the diarist and father of the ill boy, finds that one of the geniuses constructing the swan is a boy of about 10 years old, whom he describes as "an immensely clever little fidget".
Catherine's deceased lover, who was a married man, had sons who are now young men and in her dealings with them Carey touches lightly on a comparison of connubial and sexual love with the love of one's children, or of the young in general. Carey, in a subtle and lovely way, makes it clear that young people do not have to be one's biological children to carry regeneration and all the complex things they are to the older generation.
In this most poetic of novels, Carey explores not only love, but also grief and loss, the inevitable consequence of attachment.
Carey's purpose, however, is wider than the personal as he shows Amanda, Catherine's museum assistant, obsessing about the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf. She understands the mechanics of the swan with ridiculous ease, but one has to wonder whether she is as mad as she seems when she links the swan to the internal combustion engine? As the world is threatened (much more for the young than for older folk) she seeks "deep order" in the chaos, making connections that most would not dream of.
Carey runs a subplot on the story of the main swan-maker, Herr Sumper, in which he has him employed in London in the engineering workshops that are working on the plans of some extraordinary invention. Those who know about the history of science will easily deduce that this is the first computing machine designed by Charles Babbage. As is well known, it was never finally completed for various reasons. Carey has his Herr Sumper elaborate, somewhat madly, on the idea that in some instances "you are wholly un-able to associate what you see with what your life has taught you". It is also the beauty and density of Carey's writing that sustains his complex and wondrous imaginings. Admiration for English engineering and scientific creativity is expressed thus: "'London is the jewel of heaven,' Herr Sumper now said to me, his voice as soft as velvet."
A century and a half ago the swan-maker insists: "It is made to be a child's enchanter. It will be beautiful and friendly."
Carey's minute descriptions of this mechanical artwork are simply delightful. But Catherine reflects that "when they invented the internal combustion engine … it did not occur to anyone that it would change the temperature of the air and turn the oceans black as death."
This is one of Carey's shorter novels. A lament for humanity, for the future of our world, it is full of love, humour and the chemistry of tears.