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Book Review: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Updated on September 1, 2014
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears is the story of Catherine Gehrig, a horologist at London’s Swinburne Museum in 2011, who is bereaved by the death of her colleague, Matthew Tindall, a man she has been having an affair with for the past thirteen years. Their secret is known by only one other person, the head of her department, who offers her a special project to distract her from her grief. It is a box of clockwork parts that appear to be the components of a nineteenth century mechanical bird.

As Catherine investigates the material she agrees to restore, she discovers the diary of Henry Brandling written in 1854 which describes his journey to Germany to find a craftsman who will make a unique and complicated clockwork toy for his ailing son. The novel alternates between Catherine’s story and Henry’s story both written in first person.


Carey explores the themes of loss, obsession and truth in this novel. Both Catherine and Henry have lost a loved one. Catherine struggles to focus on the delicate work she needs to perform with thoughts of Matthew’s death always on her mind. Henry has already lost one child and fears losing his second. Concerned his son is living on borrowed time propels him into risky situations. Both Catherine and Henry are obsessed with the clockwork object which provides each of them with a distraction from their painful experiences. The idea of a man made machine emulating a real life animal asks us to examine what is real and what is fake. It is easier for Catherine to construct a fantasy about her relationship with Matthew than to face the reality of what she’s missed out on by not being his wife.

Narrative Devices

The voices of Catherine and Henry each have their own particular style that highlights the difference in time and gender. While the characters remain in the separate chapters the device works, but when Carey combines them towards the end of the book, the result is the dilution of both characters. Once the story of Catherine is interwoven with Henry’s diary, the sharp contrast is dulled.

Structurally, the end of the novel doesn’t provide a satisfying conclusion to the journey of either Catherine or Henry. We never know what happens when Henry gets back to England with a different toy than he set out to have made, and Catherine’s grief appears to remain unabated.


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.

Buy the Book

The Chemistry of Tears (Vintage International)
The Chemistry of Tears (Vintage International)
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.

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, sandpaperers, scientists, plumbers, mechanics – train-spotters really – with narrow specialties 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 blonde 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?

{From Penguin Books}

An Entertaining Story

Nevertheless, The Chemistry of Tears is an entertaining story that will appeal to readers who enjoy the juxtaposition of historical and contemporary characters and who can identify with the universal themes of the novel. The characters of Catherine and Henry are appealing and discovering how they resolve their challenges, in ways that are both similar and different, holds the reader’s attention until the end of the book. The author’s descriptions of clock making and antique restoration are detailed and fascinating offering a glimpse into worlds most readers wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

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Peter Carey Introduces The Chemistry of Tears


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