When Catherine Gehrig, a museum conservator in London, falls into grief after her lover’s sudden death, her boss gives her a special project. She will bring back to “life” a nineteenth-century mechanical bird. As she begins to piece the automaton together, Catherine also uncovers the diaries of Henry Brandling, who, more than a hundred years prior, had commissioned the bird for his very ill son. Catherine finds resonance and comfort in Henry’s story. But it is the mechanical creature itself, in its uncanny imitation of life, that will link these two people across a century. Through the clockwork bird, Henry and Catherine will confront the mysteries of creation, the power of human invention, and the body’s astonishing chemistry of love and feeling.
About the Author
Date of Birth:May 7, 1943
Place of Birth:Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
Education:Monash University (no degree)
Read an Excerpt
Dead, and no one told me. I walked past his office and his assistant was bawling.
“What is it Felicia?”
“Oh haven’t you heard? Mr. Tindall’s dead.”
What I heard was: “Mr. Tindall hurt his head.” I thought, for God’s sake, pull yourself together.
“Where is he, Felicia?” That was a reckless thing to ask. Matthew Tindall and I had been lovers for thirteen years, but he was my secret and I was his. In real life I avoided his assistant.
Now her lipstick was smeared and her mouth folded like an ugly sock. “Where is he?” she sobbed. “What an awful, awful question.”
I did not understand. I asked again.
“Catherine, he is dead,” and thus set herself off into a second fit of bawling.
I marched into his office, as if to prove her wrong. This was not the sort of thing one did. My secret darling was a big deal—the Head Curator of Metals. There was the photo of his two sons on the desk. His silly soft tweed hat was lying on the shelf. I snatched it. I don’t know why.
Of course she saw me steal it. I no longer cared. I fled down the Philips stairs into the main floor. On that April afternoon in the Georgian halls of the Swinburne Museum, amongst the thousand daily visitors, the eighty employees, there was not one single soul who had any idea of what had just happened.
Everything looked the same as usual. It was impossible Matthew was not there, waiting to surprise me. He was very distinctive, my lovely. There was a vertical frown mark just to the left of his big high nose. His hair was thick. His mouth was large, soft and always tender. Of course he was married. Of course. Of course. He was forty when I first noticed him, and it was seven years before we became lovers. I was by then just under thirty and still something of a freak, that is, the first female horologist the museum had ever seen.
Thirteen years. My whole life. It was a beautiful world we lived in all that time, sw1, the Swinburne Museum, one of London’s almost-secret treasure houses. It had a considerable horological department, a world-famous collection of clocks and watches, automata and other wind-up engines. If you had been there on 21 April 2010, you may have seen me, the oddly elegant tall woman with the tweed hat scrunched up in her hand. I may have looked mad, but perhaps I was not so different from my colleagues—the various curators and conservators—pounding through the public galleries on their way to a meeting or a studio or a store room where they would soon interrogate an ancient object, a sword, a quilt, or perhaps an Islamic water clock. We were museum people, scholars, priests, repairers, sand-paperers, scientists, plumbers, mechanics—train-spotters really—with narrow specialities in metals and glass and textiles and ceramics. We were of all sorts, we insisted, even while we were secretly confident that the stereotypes held true. A horologist, for instance, could never be a young woman with good legs, but a slightly nerdy man of less than five foot six—cautious, a little strange, with fine blond hair and some difficulty in looking you in the eye. You might see him scurrying like a mouse through the ground-floor galleries, with his ever-present jangling keys, looking as if he was the keeper of the mysteries. In fact no one in the Swinburne knew any more than a part of the labyrinth. We had reduced our territories to rat runs—the routes we knew would always take us where we wanted to go. This made it an extraordinarily easy place to live a secret life, and to enjoy the perverse pleasure that such a life can give.
In death it was a total horror. That is, the same, but brighter, more in focus. Everything was both crisper and further away. How had he died? How could he die?
I rushed back to my studio and Googled “Matthew Tindall,” but there was no news of any accident. However my inbox had an email which lifted my heart until I realized he had sent it at 4 p.m the day before. “I kiss your toes.” I marked it unread.
There was no one I dared turn to. I thought, I will work. It was what I had always done in crisis. It is what clocks were good for, their intricacy, their peculiar puzzles. I sat at the bench in the workroom trying to resolve an exceedingly whimsical eighteenth-century French “clock.” My tools lay on a soft grey chamois. Twenty minutes previously I had liked this French clock but now it seemed vain and preening. I buried my nose inside Matthew’s hat. “Snuffle” we would have said. “I snuffle you.” “I snuffle your neck.”
I could have gone to Sandra, the line manager. She was always a very kind woman but I could not bear anyone, not even Sandra, handling my private business, putting it out on the table and pushing it around like so many broken necklace beads.
Hello Sandra, what happened to Mr. Tindall, do you know?
My German grandfather and my very English father were clockmakers, nothing too spectacular—first Clerkenwell, then the city, then Clerkenwell again—mostly good solid English five-wheel clocks—but it was an item of faith for me, even as a little girl, that this was a very soothing, satisfying occupation. For years I thought clockmaking must still any turmoil in one’s breast. I was so confident of my opinion, so completely wrong.
The tea lady provided her depressive offering. I observed the anticlockwise motion of the slightly curdled milk, just waiting for him, I suppose. So when a hand did touch me, my whole body came unstitched. It felt like Matthew, but Matthew was dead, and in his place was Eric Croft, the Head Curator of Horology. I began to howl and could not stop.
He was the worst possible witness in the world.
Crafty Crofty was, to put it very crudely, the master of all that ticked and tocked. He was a scholar, a historian, a connoisseur. I, in comparison, was a well-educated mechanic. Crofty was famous for his scholarly work on “Sing-songs” by which is meant those perfect imperial misunderstandings of oriental culture we so successfully exported to China in the eighteenth century, highly elaborate music boxes encased in the most fanciful compositions of exotic beasts and buildings, often placed on elaborate stands. That was what it was like for members of our caste. We built our teetering lives on this sort of thing. The beasts moved their eyes, ears and tails. Pagodas rose and fell. Jewelled stars spun and revolving glass rods provided a very credible impression of water.
I bawled and bawled and now I was the one whose mouth became a sock puppet.
Like a large chairman of a rugger club who has a chihuahua as a pet, Eric did not at all resemble his Sing-songs, which one might expect to be the passion of a slim fastidious homosexual. He had a sort of hetero gung-ho quality “metals” people are expected to have.
“No, no,” he cried. “Hush.”
Hush? He was not rough with me but he got his big hard arm around my shoulder and compelled me into a fume cupboard and then turned on the extractor fan which roared like twenty hairdryers all at once. I thought, I have let the cat out of the bag.
“No,” he said. “Don’t.”
The cupboard was awfully small, built solely so that one conservator might clean an ancient object with toxic solvent. He was stroking my shoulder as if I were a horse.
“We will look after you,” he said.
In the midst of bawling, I finally understood that Crofty knew my secret.
“Go home for now,” he said quietly.
I thought, I’ve betrayed us. I thought, Matthew will be pissed off.
“Meet me at the greasy spoon,” he said. “Ten o’clock tomorrow? Across the road from the Annexe. Do you think you can manage that? Do you mind?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking, so that’s it—they are going to kick me out of the main museum. They are going to lock me in the Annexe. I had spilled the beans.
“Good.” He beamed and the creases around his mouth gave him a rather catlike appearance. He turned off the extractor fan and suddenly I could smell his aftershave. “First we’ll get you sick leave. We’ll get through this together—I’ve got something for you to sort out,” he said. “A really lovely object.” That’s how people talk at the Swinburne. They say object instead of clock.
I thought, he is exiling me, burying me. The Annexe was situated behind Olympia where my grief might be as private as my love.
So he was being kind to me, strange macho Crofty. I kissed him on his rough sandalwood-smelling cheek. We both looked at each other with astonishment, and then I fled, out onto the humid street, pounding down towards the Albert Hall with Matthew’s lovely silly hat crushed inside my hand.
i arrived home still not knowing how my darling died. I imagined he had fallen. He had hit his head. I hated how he always tipped back on his chair.
Now there would be a funeral. I tore my shirt in half, and ripped the sleeves away. All night I imagined how he had died, been run over, squashed, knifed, pushed onto the tracks. Each vision was a shock, a rip, a cry. I was in this same condition fourteen hours later when I arrived at Olympia to meet with Eric.
No one loves Olympia. It is a hateful place. But this was where the Swinburne Annexe was, so this was where I would be sent, as if I was a widow and must be burned alive. Well, light the leaves and pyre wood, I thought, because nothing could hurt more than this.
The footpaths behind the exhibition centre were unnaturally hot and narrow. The lanes were looped and dog-legged. Lethal high-speed vans lifted the dust and distributed the fag ends up and down the street where the Annexe awaited. It was not a prison—a prison would have had a sign—but its high front gates were festooned with razor wire.
Many of the Swinburne’s conservators had spent a season in the Annexe, working on an object whose restoration could not be properly undertaken at the main museum. Some claimed to have enjoyed their stay, but how could I be severed from my Swinburne, my museum, my life where every stairway and lowly hallway, every flake of plaster, every molecule of acetone contained my love for Matthew and my evacuated heart?
Opposite the Annexe I found George’s Café with its doors wide open to the freakish heat.
You would think the author of Balance of Payments: The Sing-song Trade with China in the Eighteenth Century would be clearly distinguishable from the four sweaty policemen at the back booth, the drivers from Olympia, the postal workers from the West Kensington Delivery Office who, it seems, had been given permission to wear shorts. Not a good idea, but never mind. If the distinguished curator had not risen (awkwardly, for the plywood booths did not encourage large men to make this sort of motion) I might not have picked him out at all.
Crofty liked to say that he was a perfect no one. Yet although he was so opaquely estuary and his bone-crushing handshake had roots somewhere in the years of his birth, in the manly 1950s, he might turn up to drinks for the Minister for Arts where you, if you were lucky enough to be invited, might learn that he had been in Scotland hunting with Ellsworth (Sir Ellis Crispin to you) on the previous weekend. It appeared that I was now to be protected by this powerful man.
I saw his eyes—all the frightening sympathy. I fussed with my umbrella and placed a notebook on the table, but he covered my hand with his own—it was large and dry and warm like something you would hatch eggs in.
“What a horror it all is,” he said.
“Tell me. Please, Eric. What happened?”
“Oh Christ,” he said. “Of course you do not know.”
I could not look at him. I rescued my hand and hid it in my lap.
“Heart attack, big one. So sorry. On the tube.”
The tube. I had seen the tube all night, the dark hot violence of it. I snatched the menu and ordered baked beans and two poached eggs. I could feel Eric watching me with his soft wet eyes. They were no help, no help at all. I rearranged my cutlery violently.
“They got him off at Notting Hill.”
I thought he was going to say that this was good, to die so close to home. He didn’t. But I could not bear the thought that they had taken him back to her.
And she, that great designer of marital “understanding,” would play the grieving widow. “I suppose it is Kensal Green, the funeral?” Just up the Harrow Road, I thought, so handy.
“No, Eric. That is totally impossible.”
“Tomorrow at three.” Now he could not look at me. “I don’t know what you wish to do.”
Of course, of course. They would all be there, his wife, his sons, his colleagues. I would be expected to go, but I could not. I would give everything away.
“No one gets buried that quickly,” I said. “She’s trying to hide something.” I thought, she wants him in the ground away from me.
“No, no, old love, nothing like that. Not even the awful Margaret is capable of that.”
“Have you ever tried to book a funeral? It took me two weeks to get my father buried.”
“In this case, they had a cancellation.”
“Had a cancellation.”
I don’t know who laughed first, maybe it was me because once I started it took a while to stop. “They had a cancellation? Someone decided not to die.”
“I don’t know, Catherine, perhaps they got a lower price from a different cemetery, but it is tomorrow at three o’clock.” He pushed a folded piece of paper across the table.
“A prescription for sleeping pills. We’ll look after you,” he said again.
“No one will know.”
We sat quietly then, and a suffocating mass of food was placed in front of me. Eric had wisely ordered a single hardboiled egg.
I watched him crack its shell, peeling it away to reveal a soft and shiny membrane.
“What happens to his emails?” I asked, because I had been thinking about that all night as well. Our personal life was preserved on the Swinburne server in a windowless building in Shepherd’s Bush.
“It’s down,” he said.
“You mean down, or you mean deleted?”
“No, no, the whole museum system is down. Heat wave. Air conditioning failed, I’m told.”
“So it’s not deleted at all.”
What People are Saying About This
“Dazzling . . . encompasses heartbreak, the comfort of absorbing work, the transformative power of beauty and the soul of an old machine. . . . part historical, part fanciful, and completely wonderful.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Ambitious, playful and engagingly strange.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Touching and thought-provoking.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Deeply moving. . . tells the story of the essential human desire to return to the individual Edens that we inhabited. . . . beautifully told.” —Nature
“Characters that beguile and convince, prose that dances or is as careful as poetry, an inventive plot that teases and makes the heart quicken or hurt, paced with masterly precision, yet with a space for the ideas to breathe and expand in dialogue with the reader, unusual settings of place and time: this tender tour de force of the imagination succeeds on all fronts.” —The Independent (London)
“Carey is one of the finest living writers in English. His best books satisfy both intellectually and emotionally; he is lyrical yet never forgets the imperative to entertain. . . . A wholly enjoyable journey.” —The Economist
“Carey is one of the most original novelists writing today.” —The New Republic
“Vividly rendered. . . . Carey has given each story the chaotic quality of hallucination. . . . He shapes the two madnesses with imaginative intensity.” —The Boston Globe
“A beautifully written, richly layered novel that includes treats like a meaningful, hidden message in Latin and a mysterious blue wooden block hidden inside the automaton. . . . Its graceful subtlety will keep you thinking long after you've closed the book.” —Vancouver Sun
“A short novel that bristles with ideas. . . . Carey is a master novelist.” —The Oregonian
“Heartbreaking. . . . [A] profoundly detailed study of love and grief. . . . Carey has built us a captivating replica of the most timeless piece of machinery of all—a broken heart.” —The Seattle Times
“Leave it to a protean virtuoso like Peter Carey to write a novel, The Chemistry of Tears, that draws compelling parallels between a Victorian-era automaton of a defecating duck and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And, what’s more, to make of it another delightfully recondite tour-de-force performance.” —The Toronto Star
“For his new, briskly paced novel, The Chemistry of Tears, he has pulled off a nifty trick, offering interconnected plots set in two distinct eras. . . . Carey’s deft, spare prose is full of striking images. . . . Carey explores a series of interconnected themes that are admirably complex for such a short book.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A writer of such sustained flair that he has, only two years after his Man Booker–shortlisted Parrot and Olivier in America, delivered another stylish tour de force. . . . With typical dogged panache, Carey’s exploration of technology and tears indicates that emotion defies rationalism’s impositions.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Chemistry of Tears, a novel that explores love and obsession in two drastically different eras from two-time Booker Prize–winning author Peter Carey.
1. We are told the story through two different narrators: Catherine Gehrig and Henry Brandling. Are they reliable?
2. How are the lives of Catherine and Henry similar? How do they differ, aside from their time periods and locations?
3. Why do you think Catherine is drawn to Henry’s story with such curiosity? Do you think her state of grief affects the way she reacts to his journals? If so, how?
4. How do grief and loss function in the novel as a whole? What are some of the ways Catherine and Henry—or any of the other characters—cope with grief in their lives? How does this affect the mood and atmosphere of the novel?
5. Catherine is a horologist, used to dealing with many fine mechanical parts. How is her personality suited to this? How is it not?
6. Despite difficult circumstances at home, Henry Brandling begins his trek as an optimist, even saying “Brandling would see the glass half full even when it lay in shards around his feet” (p. 55). Do you think Henry is naive? Or is this a useful attitude for him to take in the face of hardships?
7. Carl emerges as an interesting and important character, particularly to Henry. How do Henry, Herr Sumper, and Frau Helga each view Carl? How do you view Carl?
8. Were you surprised when Henry violently beats Sumper (p. 93)? Were there any earlier indications that Henry would be prone to such rage? How would you characterize Henry’s and Sumper’s reactions the following day?
9. What reactions did you have to the scene between Catherine and her lover’s sons? What do you make of Noah and Angus’s gift to Catherine?
10. How would you characterize Catherine’s relationship with Amanda? How does it compare with Henry’s relationship with Sumper?
11. Eric Croft plays a central role in many aspects of Catherine’s life, which leads her to call him “an awful meddler” (p. 176). Do you agree or disagree? Do you think his motives are selfless, or does he have his own agenda?
12. What do you think the title The Chemistry of Tears might refer to?