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History, Heartbreak And ‘The Chemistry Of Tears’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
May 13, 2012

In Peter Carey’s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, the hero and the heroine are separated by 150 years. It is an object — a piece of technology — that brings Catherine and Henry together: An enormous, 19th-century, mechanical duck.

Catherine, a horologist — an expert on the inner workings of clocks — is restoring it in the present day. It’s a distraction from the sudden death of her married lover. Henry, more than a century earlier, commissions the duck as a giant toy for his beloved, but very sick child.

As the two narratives unfold, the duck becomes a swan, and many of its inner workings are revealed. This is not exactly true for the difficult, mysterious characters who populate the book. Carey, a two-time Booker Prize winner, talks with NPR’s Rachel Martin about his 12th novel.

Interview Highlights

On humans as inventors and victims of technology

“I began thinking about how all of that wonderful, bright invention of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution and before that demonstrates human beings as playful and inventive and capable of amazing things, and how all of that has really led us to the present plight we face on the planet, where we appear to be poisoning ourselves. So that’s the relationship between humans and technology, in which the humans are at once the pure inventors and pure souls and then also the victims of technology.”

On the use of a dual narrative

“I was interested in the present, and I was interested in the past. And the only reason I’m ever really interested about the past is because of its affect on the present. And although part of this book is set in the 19th century, with characters living in the 19th century, we too are living in the consequences of the 19th century. So, it’s really quite simple in this case. I mean, you have one character who’s living in 2010 and one character who’s living in 1858, and these are ways to know them directly, to know them from inside.”

On tears and combining science and feeling

“I shouldn’t really admit this, but what the title came from was a Google search. Because I thought, I don’t know anything about tears, but I bet you they do all sorts of things I don’t know about. And indeed, they do. … It seemed to me to encapsulate the book, in the sense that we are looking at human yearning and human pain and loss and fear of death and searches for other meanings. And at the same time, the notion of chemistry, which seems to sort of go against the feeling of things. So I wanted to combine science and feeling, I suppose.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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