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The Book We're Talking About: "The Chemistry Of Tears" By Peter Carey

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"The Chemistry of Tears" by Peter Carey
Knopf, $26.00
Publishes on May 15th

What is it about?
A museum conservator in London learns of the death of her secret lover, and has a breakdown as a result. Her boss, the only other person who knew of her affair, gives her a new project to work on: unpacking and rebuilding a 19th-century automaton of a bird, along with the notes of its patron. She soon becomes fascinated with the personal papers of Henry Brandling, which detail the unusual lengths he had to go to commission this eerie creation. As she unravels emotionally, her obsession with the mechanical creature, and what it might reveal about life and death, intensifies.

Why are we talking about it?
Carey's work always demands attention. As with many of his other books, this one jumps between time periods, while occasionally mixing them up with remarkable skill. Both narratives in "The Chemistry of Tears" are compelling and unusual, and told in the first person.

Though it has its flaws, elements of this story and its characters stay with you afterwards; given that Peter Carey is a two-time Booker Prize winner, this could be one of the summer's big literary reads.

Who wrote it?
Peter Carey was born in Australia, and has lived in New York City for the past twenty years. He worked in ad agencies, writing in the evenings, before his short story collection, The Fat Man In History, was published. Since then, his most famous works are "Oscar and Lucinda," (which won the Booker Prize in 1988), "The Tax Inspector," "His Illegal Self" and the truly remarkable 2001 Booker Prize-winning "True History of the Kelly Gang."

Who will read it?
People who enjoy approachable literary fiction. People interested in art, conservation, museums. Fans of automata.

What's it similar to?
In its treatment of death, shame and family, it contains echoes of Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending"; real retellings of the subject matter and the obsessive characters it attracts are eloquently told in Gaby Woods' "Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life."

What do the reviews say?

The Guardian:
"For all its brilliance, The Chemistry of Tears is a novel that speaks to the intellect rather than the heart – it is a complex and expertly crafted piece of machinery, but not an altogether convincing representation of life."

The Independent:
"This novel lacks the wicked energy of Parrot and Olivier or Theft: A Love Story. But if Carey's best books are superlative, the next tier down is still better – meatier, more imaginative – than many writers ever manage."

Impress your friends
In 1738, a French inventor called Jacques Vaucanson made an automaton duck that could move in a lifelike manner, and that, most remarkably, appeared to be able to eat and defecate. It became a sensation in Paris, as crowds flocked to see it work. The duck disappeared sometime in the 19th Century, and today, nobody is sure how it worked. Though less famous, the automaton in the book is actually based on The Silver Swan, which is on display in a museum in the north of England.

Opening line

Dead, and no one told me.

Notable passage

It glowed, my stolen jewel, deeply evasive, sad and melancholic, a study in blue but also something like a small boy's slippers placed beneath his bed three thousand summer nights ago. Soon, but not immediately, my mind began to drive down Henry Branding's paths, narrow lines in the meadow where the grass was bent, broken yellow and bruised, fresh tracks that led to little hopping Carl the hare, clever clever Carl now dead as dead could be. Carl calcified and crumbled and the brain that had made and known the cube had vanished, less than a glow worm in the night, not even a dried cicada in a case. At this point, as I drained my glass, I heard the music of my clocks as I had heard them last night. The wind-up orchestra had always meant Clerkenwell, comfort, safety, peace. I had spent my entire life foolishly seduced by ticking clocks, never bothering to hear the horror underneath.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore.

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