It is not uncommon for children to draw maps. But Róisín, in Helen Sedgwick’s debut novel The Comet Seekers, is an uncommon child who draws maps of the night-time sky, for:
Why draw a square house with a triangular roof when you can draw the patterns in the stars?
Even though we may travel across the world by plane, most of us are such earthbound creatures. Only when there is an event like the Perseid meteor showers do we think of looking up at the night sky. Those so-called shooting stars which we have just recently had the chance to see are not stars at all, but debris from one of the many comets which orbit elliptically around our Sun, drawn down by the Earth’s gravitational pull as we cross the comet’s orbit.
The action of The Comet Seekers is delineated by the orbits of some of the comets in our solar system, and by what happens when they make a close enough approach to Earth to be seen. At the age of nine Róisín watches Comet West with her younger cousin Liam in her home in Ireland. As children they make a small hut in the wood for adventures; they return to it as teenagers for a different kind of exploration. But their ambitions are different; Liam stays to work on the family farm when Róisín moves away to follows her childhood ambition of becoming an astrophysicist, wanting:
…the promise of a bigger world, a cosmos, an expanding universe. She’s too tall to lie in an island hut forever.
But, as comets return on their orbits, so does Róisín, though only to depart again and again on her journey, constantly seeking something, as her father did before her.
In a parallel story, two countries and two channels away in the northern French town of Bayeux, Severine is growing up with her mother and her grandmother and seeing the same comets. When the comets return so do her ancestors, ghosts visible and audible to her granny, but not to Severine as a child. Ten years later, as Halley’s Comet is in the sky, she learns from her dying granny what she has to do to see and talk to the ghosts herself. The price she has to pay is to stay in Bayeux, and when the comets come so will Great-Grandpa Paul-François, Uncle Antoine, Henri from the 1750s and others, all with stories to tell, all precious to her as members of her family.
Severine and Liam, in their separate orbits, are those who stay put, although they are both drawn by the night sky. Severine’s son François and Liam’s cousin Róisín are the ones who travel, and as they do so their orbits cross, in Bayeux, in Scotland and eventually, much further afield. Helen Sedgwick stitches the fabric of the stories of all four together very neatly, crossing from one to another seamlessly within the framework of the visiting comets. Her own background as a research physicist has informed her writing hugely; there is a lot of scientific detail sewn into the stories, but never so that it slows the action or becomes impenetrable.
In times past, before planetary motion was understood, the periodic passage through the night sky of fast-moving bodies with bright tails was often viewed as a bad omen. There was such an occurrence in 1066 before the Battle of Hastings. The comet which we now know to be Halley’s Comet – named after the astronomer who in 1705 published his computation of its orbit – is stitched boldly into the Bayeux tapestry, above the figure of the ill-fated King Harold of England. In The Comet Seekers Severine’s son François has grown up familiar the tapestry, but it is only when his mama asks him to take her to see it before he leaves home for what will be the last time that he notices there something she points out to him. It is the stitched image of a mysterious woman called Ælfgifu, who looks like Severine herself. She is one of the ghosts his mama had talked about, a girl who loved a soldier boy.
The stories of most of the ghosts are fleshed out in snatches. It is enough and not too much to distract from the stories of the living characters in the novel. There is one ghost though, Brigitte, who is troubled. Each time she returns she is consumed, as she was in life, by a fire. She is distressed about what she fears happened to her son and is, as it turns out, a pivotal character in the denouement of the book.
Helen Sedgwick’s prose writing is beautifully clear. This is a novel you could take as a holiday read while travelling and enjoy its easy-reading style. That is not to disparage it. You could equally return to it at home in winter evenings and take more time to appreciate the ways in which the author has used the background of the comets to explore the nuances of human relationships, the tensions between family attachments and the desire of individuals to make discoveries for themselves and the sadnesses which ensue.
For example, when she is in Edinburgh during her twenties, trying to reconcile herself to a relationship with Liam as cousins and no more, Róisín is watching Comet Shoemaker-Levy, which is expected to explode dramatically in the atmosphere of Jupiter. This turns out to be a slower process than expected:
She was expecting fireworks, a series of bright explosions like timpani in light, but she should have realised that destruction takes time; that damage lingers on the surface before leaving a lasting impression.
The arrival in Edinburgh at the same time of Severine and her young son is for me a slightly forced co-incidence, but this is one of the difficulties of bringing together two apparently separate stories, and is only a slight niggle. There are a few others – music choices which seem to be those of the author rather than the characters, and perhaps an over-insistence on the significance of the colour red and of memories of particular foods from childhood. But these quibbles are vastly outweighed by the satisfactions of reading The Comet Seekers. Helen Sedgwick never overdoes description, but includes small, telling touches such as at Liam’s father’s funeral, where:
There’s a hotel restaurant with crustless sandwiches and tablecloths of navy blue
and when a distant relative shakes Liam’s hand:
It leaves a smudge of butter cream on his thumb.
The novel captures wonderfully the vastness of the space and time within which its characters – and all of us – live, and poignantly conveys the experience of human loss, the simple but profound compensations of family connections, and the twin pulls of adventure and home.
Harvill Secker, 304pp, £12.99