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We asked Peter Carey’s longtime editor at Vintage to tell us what makes The Chemistry of Tears such a wonderful addition to his body of work—and what makes it a great introduction to one of our greatest novelists.
Over the past three decades, Peter Carey has become one of the most respected figures in the literary world. I’ve had the privilege of working with Peter at Vintage for several years now, and have felt increasing admiration with each book. Although he is perhaps best known for his historical novels—including Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, each of which was awarded a Man Booker Prize—Carey’s body of work displays an enviable range. His most recent books have taken us, by turns, into the scandals of the art market (Theft, in 2006), the domestic lives of former sixties radicals (His Illegal Self, in 2008), and the throes of early American democracy (Parrot and Olivier in America, in 2009). Through it all, there is Carey’s inimitable voice: the voice that elevates the words on the page, that draws us so naturally into each new world, that takes on the varied cadences of a desperate painter, a compulsive gambler, or a seven-year-old boy—all with pitch-perfect clarity.
In The Chemistry of Tears, the first voice we hear is one of grief: “Dead, and no one told me.” Catherine Gehrig, horologist at the Swinburne museum in London, has just lost the love of her life to a heart attack. Because he was a married man and she his secret mistress, she was not informed of the death firsthand. She cannot attend the funeral. She cannot reveal her grief, even as it threatens to tear her apart. And so Carey shows us the unique and profoundly private cycle of loss and acceptance that Catherine must fashion for herself in the depths of the Swinburne. As a horologist, an expert in all things having to do with clocks and timepieces, Catherine finds solace in a mechanical bird that has just arrived at the museum. The automaton comes with a story—stacks of diaries, dating back to 1854, that chronicle one Henry Brandling’s attempts to commission this mysterious toy for his dying son. As Catherine becomes immersed in Brandling’s writings, she finds herself linked to a stranger—and to the long chain of human invention that rages both change and destruction today.
For those new to Carey, The Chemistry of Tears is a wonderful introduction. This novel showcases his talent for both historical and contemporary settings, as two parallel plots pivot and intertwine around their shared object. Catherine and Henry sparkle with Carey’s trademark energy and humor—these are characters that truly leap off the page. For Carey’s longtime readers, the novel shows one of our greatest authors at astonishing new heights of innovation. There is an almost heady level of risk in this storytelling enterprise: as the chapters roll past, it becomes clear that the author has taken on nothing less than a critique of human progress. That a novel can scale such heights—while also exploring the aesthetics of invention, the ethics of science, the contours of grief, and the nature of love—is the finest possible testament to Peter Carey’s powers as a writer.