Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines automaton as “a mechanism that is relatively self-operating” such as a robot. Such a machine forms the underpinning of the two-time Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey’s newest book, The Chemistry of Tears.
Carey introduces Catherine Gerhig, a London museum curator. She has just been told about the unexpected death of co-worker and family man Matthew, with whom she has been having a covert long-term affair. Catherine’s boss assigns to her the labor-intensive job of reassembling a complicated Victorian mechanical toy in attempt to distract her from her overwhelming grief. Amongst the chests of parts, Catherine finds the journals of Henry Brandling. Brandling was an Englishman who had traveled to rural Germany to commission clockmakers to build a fantastic mechanical duck which he intends to present to his beloved sickly son.
Webster’s second meaning for automaton refers to a machine operating according to predetermined directions; Catherine and Henry, as revealed through his diaries, both seem to be on autopilot themselves. Henry is on his single-minded quixotic quest to bring home a toy, the magical novelty of which he believes will spark his son to live. Self-medicated Catherine is slogging through the motions of life, unhinged as she is by her anguish at losing her lover.
Carey is a clever writer who blurs the distinctions between man and machine. Catherine eats only to live, Henry despairs at the paucity of food available to him, and what turns out to be a swan has a fully functioning digestive tract and eats for the entertainment of others. Henry and Catherine are objects of manipulation, as is the swan. The Chemistry of Tears is a well-written and intelligent story and Carey’s illuminating descriptions of antique mechanical inventions are a lovely bonus.