Leave it to a protean virtuoso like Peter Carey to write a novel 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.
Australian-born, New York-based Carey is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice (for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang). The other is South African writer J.M. Coetzee (who, oddly enough, is now an Australian citizen). The Chemistry of Tears could well deliver Carey the Booker hat trick, but even if it doesn’t it will do little to stanch a snowballing sense that Carey is the finest writer Australia has produced.
Catherine Gehrig is a conservator who spends her days meticulously restoring antique clockworks at one of London’s countless unheralded treasure museums. The novel begins with the announcement that Catherine’s lover—the museum’s Head Curator of Metals and thus “a big deal”—has had a fatal heart attack. A public show of mourning being out of the question, Catherine is forced to hide her devastating loss. The thousands of incriminating personal emails she knows are sitting on the museum’s server are, however, less easily avoided.
An unexpected show of sympathy from her boss—his hand covering hers “large and dry and warm like something you would hatch eggs in”—tells Catherine that her and Matthew’s secret was not as well-guarded as she had believed. As a kindness, he assigns her to a project in one of the museum’s studios so she can lick her wounds privately before crawling home each night to vodka-induced oblivion. The project, assembling and cleaning an eerily lifelike 150-year-old mechanical swan, intrigues her; what obsesses her though are the eleven notebooks she discovers, packed amidst thousands of pieces of metal and glass, explaining its provenance.
The notebooks belong to Henry Brandling, a British railway magnate who, back in 1854, decided that the only way to revive his consumptive son and win back his churlish wife was to commission a model of Jacques de Vaucanson’s famous “digesting” duck. To do so, Brandling travels deep into Germany’s Black Forest where instead of a “mighty race of clockmakers” (they of cuckoo-clock fame) eager to do his bidding, he finds a gang of elusive, provincial villagers deeply suspicious of his intentions. The commission is quickly hijacked by Herr Sumper, a simmering, thickset man who talks cryptically and oracularly about a future dominated by powerful machines immune to human error and who views Brandling’s arrival as the fulfillment of a prophecy foretold by his brilliant master, the early computer engineer Albert Cruickshank.
Carey exquisitely juggles and juxtaposes Catherine and Henry’s era-spanning mutual paranoia, grief and quest for control over their lives. Increasingly convinced that Henry’s story belongs to her, Catherine smuggles the notebooks out of the museum and hides them in her apartment. She is especially keen to keep them from the prying eyes of Amanda, her unnervingly capable yet mentally unstable assistant, whose parents’ patronage of the museum makes her unfireable.
Back in the Black Forest, Henry’s discovers his duck has been turned, against his wishes, into a swan. A century-and-a-half later, Herr Sumper’s love affair with industrialization crossfades with the horrific image—conveniently viewable in live-stream on the Internet—of a seemingly endless supply of oil spewing into Gulf of Mexico. The victims of this disaster, chief among them decidedly un-mechanical ducks, will not so readily be brought back to life.