It’s easy to concentrate on the great creative power of love. But all that is great comes at a price. So it can’t be any other way with love. One finds that there is an enormous collateral to love, to loving, for in order to feel the real, unparallelled love one has to have it attached directly to the spine, the heart and the soul. This means that love as much as it is a creative force must also be as a grand destructive force, capable of the greatest harm, the shattering of hearts and souls.
Love is also a delicate and particularly evanescent phenomenon, and it requires a steady pen to make a decent literary attempt at explicating it. Perhaps the feeling of love is not as hard to describe in literature as its former companion (before annus mirabilis, as Philip Larkin would have us remember) – sex, which can be easily seen in all writing that uses lovemaking, inevitably ending up rather peculiar and awkward. It may even be harder to write of love in novels than it is in poems, as poems have the power to stop all flows and concentrate on the feeling itself with great precision and patience. But in novels it requires great literary skill to capture love in a convincing and honest manner. Thankfully Peter Carey is one of the best contemporary writers to which his numerous literary prizes can attest, lead by two Booker prizes (for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001).
A reader can therefore expect a double delight from The Chemistry of Tears, both in the language and in the story. What that reader may not expect however is that the story itself will provide double the customary enjoyment. Not only do we get a story of a woman – Catherine Gehrig, a conservator at London’s Swinburne Museum – who’s grieving her late lover, whose unexpected death is announced on the first page; but also a story of a man from earlier time (Henry), losing, but not yet having lost, his family (in particular his son who is in feeble health), yet fighting to gain happiness nonetheless (the fight, the journey which is central to it joins the two characters if only in an unidirectional way). Together they create a tale of love, loss, passion and desperation.
The introduction of a parallel story read by and affecting the main character creates a strong bond between the reader and Catherine, the aforementioned horologist, allowing the reader to identify with the second main character (Henry) at the same time as she does, in a rare occurrence of reading fiction together with another human being, if only imaginary. The sharing of the numinous process of taking in fictional stories creates a strong bond between the reader, his literary companion and the hero of the story read together as well. The chapters marked Catherine & Henry are the most enjoyble in The Chemistry of Tears for this specific reason. The process makes Catherine become very close to the reader and to the story, or both stories. The grip the novel has can be attributed not just to the above, and to the elements of mystery in Henry’s story, but to more literary qualities as well.
Peter Carey’s English does not surprise, but it doesn’t need to in order to please. Mr. Carey isn’t on the same level as Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie when the use English is concerned, the language itself would not make his fiction worth reading, as it often does for the other two writers. But his language is very good nonetheless, showing brilliant understanding of rhythm, and striking with piercing insightfulness (“I thought, she has such a lovely perfect skin. She has no idea she is going to die.”). The language of the novel makes the great story pleasantly dressed, adding to the elegant enjoyment of reading The Chemistry of Tears.
As in life, in love, not everything is black or white. There is a grey area tainting the above-presented snow-white side of the novel. Mr. Carey started the novel on a strong note, the destruction of something of utmost importance to the main character, and ended perhaps on a similarly high pitch, that is with the creation of something important for her, for Henry (joining them together in a stronger way) and a few more characters. But the two are somewhat disjoined. The story seems to be closed by this creation, but the two connected stories get lost somewhere on the final pages and there is a feeling that they are left unfinished, that there are things untold, while the final pages are hijacked by the precise swan being created as a timely metaphor. Therefore the reader is left unsatiated, and disappointingly so.
Despite Mr. Carey’s apparent loss of the thread of the story before it was fully unravelled in front of the reader the novel is a strong literary effort and a magnificent journey of love, death, hate, life and beauty. All this in an addictive setting, filled with emotions and mystery. Covered in Carey’s Dickensian prose it is a recipe for a very good novel indeed, and this is also my verdict.