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The Chemistry of Tears, By Peter Carey

A time-hopping novel about the imitation of life and the illusion of progress, as delicately constructed as the mechanical duck at its centre

The title is odd; but then, that sets you up nicely for the contents, which include horology, mechanical engineering, mysticism and a healthy helping of bureaucracy, but very little chemistry. There are no chemical formulae, and while there is a kind of chemistry between the hero, Henry, and heroine, Catherine, it is hardly the stuff of which Mills & Boon books are made: Catherine is distraught over the death of her lover; Henry deranged with dread at the prospect of losing his son. And anyway, she is too young for him, by around 150 years.

As he often does, Peter Carey has jumped from one era – his last book, Parrot and Olivier in America, zipped between revolutionary France and the fledgling United States – to another entirely. Henry is an English gentleman at a time, the 19th century, when there was no better vocation: his family's substantial fortune is in railways, yet he has lost one child to consumption and is terrified that his frail boy will go the same way. So, being a Victorian, he places his faith in technology. He will have a mechanical duck built, just like the one Vaucanson had constructed a century before. This miraculous automaton which, like its predecessor, will seem to eat, drink and defecate, will prolong life by imitating it: such will be little Percy's wonder at his new toy that the child will recover, and live.

We aren't given much time to ponder the vagaries of the Victorian belief – here borne, admittedly, of desperation – that man can conquer anything, even death, with a good brain, the right set of plans and the requisite materials. Carey packs Henry off to Germany and throws him into company with a self-declared genius, Sumper – a typical Carey reprobate whose lurid tales of would-be parricide, conspiracy, imprisonment, even alien life forms, make poor woeful Henry appear pallid and uninteresting. Via Sumper, who will build Henry's automaton, we glimpse another world.

Somehow, Carey – an Australian who has lived in New York for 20 years – manages to inject a bit of his homeland into the most unlikely novels. Sumper may be stuck in a Black Forest village looking longingly out to London, "the jewel of the world", but he is also a convict manqué, deported home when he should have been sent to the penal colony of New South Wales, and a misfit capable of all kinds of reckless, often illegal, behaviour. He brings the salt of the New World to the bland dish that is Henry's inadvertent adventuring; powered by his crazed chuntering, the German segments gain some much-needed velocity, becoming less duck-building workshop, more wild goose chase.

Fortunately for everybody's sanity, Sumper isn't the book's only reprobate. Catherine was a colleague's mistress for 13 years; her grief at Matthew's death is all the more terrible for being repressed – although it's not very repressed, thanks to her circumscribed existence and her liberal self-medicating with vodka. Her boss, who knows just what she's going through, gives her Henry's automaton to reassemble, along with his diaries which, being a Carey character, Catherine promptly steals.

And so, in tandem with the bird, another strange, man-made construction comes into being: one that also has mechanical innards, a human inventor and a simulated life intended to mirror reality so closely that truth and fiction become inseparable: this novel. Sometimes, it clanks, but the structure is as delicately clever as any automaton's, the fiction building up in layers as supple as human skin. We read Catherine reading Henry, who is paying to have one fiction created in order to try to perpetrate another – arguably, the defining tenet of fiction: that genius can reconstruct reality. And, just as the diaries have multiple readers, the bird has multiple creators, from Vaucanson to Carey to Sumper and Catherine, who probes both diaries and mechanical carcass in search of truth – even as her simultaneous deleting of Matthew's emails (she has, naturally, hacked into them: she'd have made a pretty good convict herself), one by agonising one, is a reminder of the inevitable editing, deleting and repurposing to which all stories are subject. Even time, here, comes in many-splendored layers. No wonder the characters have trouble seeing what's in front of them – and, sometimes, see things that aren't there. Truth and fiction run together like teardrops.

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. The Chemistry of Tears is awash with grief, some of it Carey's: for the breathless faith in our own perfectibility that has degenerated into environmental disaster. All those clever, delicate hands and brains – who knew they would wind up wreaking such havoc? We are truly a sulphurous species. Perhaps that is the origin of Carey's title: these days, we really do weep chemical tears.

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