Please God, Find Me a Husband!
Faber & Faber, 271pp
As the name suggests, The Chemistry of
Tears probes the relationship between science and emotion.
Peter Carey obviously couldn't resist a fabulous title when he
thought of it, but the book is actually more about mechanical
engineering than chemistry.
Two parallel stories, one set in 1854, the other in 2010 run
tightly together like precision-made cogs. In the contemporary
story, Catherine Gehrig who works at a museum a little like the
V&A is felled by the death of her secret lover and colleague,
the married Matthew Tindall. Her boss gives her space to grieve by
isolating her with the task of renovating a prestigious mechanical
swan. In the 1854 strand we discover the origin of the swan:
Henry Brandling's little son, Percy, is dying of consumption.
Pathetically he has requested a mechanical duck to swim on the
cistern at home. Brandling places all his fading hope in the
curative power of the toy and, in an act of desperation, sets out
to Germany to commission it.
Having read the pre-publicity for The Chemistry of
Tears about the two grieving protagonists, notwithstanding the
fact that the novel was written by Peter Carey, I had expected
something gentler, about coming to terms with bereavement. But
instead this novel is always teetering on the brink of
violence. I had trouble deciding whether every single
character was to some extent mad, or whether they simply appeared
mad because, rather like the automata with which they work, only
their actions are on display rather than their emotions and
motivations. There are several occasions on which one character
flings themself at another, in aggression, as if their spring had
been too tightly wound. Such erratic behaviour in the environment
of a museum and in proximity to delicate and irreplaceable objects
builds the tension throughout the book.
The novel ticks over with questions about life and death.
Catherine understands the body purely as a mechanical/biological
entity. Thus, while a bereaved Christian might comfort themselves
with goofy speculations about whether their dead loved one is
chatting to Martin Luther King or Charlotte Brontë in heaven,
Catherine returns regularly to thoughts of the decay of her lover's
body. On the very last page, she mentions the word 'soul' - 'The
soul has no chemistry' and it is for the reader to decide whether
that means that Catherine believes the soul exists in a form
inaccessible to science, or whether, having no chemistry, it cannot
Science and technology are shown trying to reproduce the
appearance of life in bodies that either never were or no longer
are alive. The museum automata are sinister, with zombie movements
that simulate life, yet without that vital spark. The emails of
Catherine's lover persist after him, so do his genes, apparent in
his sons. In the 19th century, Henry Brandling is photographed
holding his dead daughter made up by the mortician to look alive.
Later in the story, an ingenious assistant simulates life in a dead
mouse, Frankenstein-like by passing electricity through it.
There is also the question of the relationship of God to
machines. In the passage where the ingenious swan automaton is put
through its impressive paces, its very lack of emotion seems to
make it powerful: 'It had no sense of touch. It had no brain. It
was as glorious as God.' Such a God would be both ruthless and
amoral, but in so far as Catherine conceives of God at all, that is
perhaps how she sees him in the face of her lover's death. By
contrast, her assistant Amanda strains to find religious meaning in
the artefacts they are restoring, for instance seeing a cube as a
reference to Jesus because, when opened out, it forms the shape of
a cross. At first portrayed as unhinged, at the close of the novel
it is possible Amanda's theories will prove correct. In the 1854
tale, Herr Sumper uses his mechanical skills to produce a
'blasphemous' automaton - a comical Jesus on wheels, whose sacred
heart pumps and who spins on the floor. Another 1854 character,
Albert Cruikshank, discovers the power of the computer programmer -
he can instruct his great calculating machine so that at a point
predetermined by him, two plus two no longer makes four.
Carey explores the positive roles that mechanical engines might
have for a person, but there are negative motifs too, such as the
BP oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico. However, these plot
elements seem bolted on, rather than integral to the stories of
Catherine Gehrig and Henry Brandling.
There is a sense in which automata are forced to perform, eating
when they are not hungry, dancing when they do not feel joy. To
some extent, this is the case with Carey's characters in this
novel. It is necessary to the structure of the book that a
preoccupation with the mechanical swan should distract both Henry
Brandling in 1854 and Catherine Gehrig in 2010 from their grief,
but I do not quite believe in the circumstances of either.
The wife of Catherine's lover was known to be having affairs and
his sons were now young adults so why had Matthew not left his wife
for Catherine and why did their affair have to be such a
closely-guarded secret? Would Henry Brandling really have
been persuaded to leave his beloved son Percy who seemed likely to
die while he was away?
There is a point where Catherine calls a halt to the performance
of the mechanical swan because she has perceived a slight juddering
in the mechanism which gives away its artificiality. Perhaps
such an artificiality is perceptible in Peter Carey's plot, yet we
still appreciate the operation of this hugely accomplished and