Strafed by ghosts and comets and unrequited love, Sedgwick’s tale begins in Antarctica. Her central characters, Roisin and Francois, have just arrived at the Halley VI Research Station, ostensibly to study one particular comet. Concealed in a world of never-ending white, this man and woman are at once hypnotized by the absolute silence of the snow and ice and dust and rock. Roisin thinks of Liam, her ex-boyfriend who chose to remain back on his father’s farm in Ireland. Francois stays up late in the night writing to Severine, his mother back in Bayeux.
An accomplished astrophysicist, Roisin has never forgotten her time with Liam. She recalls how they were both joined together by a comet “as bright as it can be in the daytime sky.” Yet Roisin was filled with a longing to see the wider world and find a way through the turbulent years ahead. While Liam imagined a life somehow relative to the farm, like the comets she fanatically studies, Roisin kept on moving across the world--from Edinburgh to London and finally to Bayeux. As Roisin tells Francois how comets are made from the ice and rock and molecules and all the interplanetary junk “that gets picked up along the way,” she confides about Liam and the terrible tragedy that defined his life.
So begins the sad journey of Sedgwick’s characters. Severine dreams of thousands of ghosts, all clamoring to be heard. They seem to want to “break from their disorderly queue and talk all at once.” Living in Bayeux while raising
10-year-old Francois, Severine speaks to her ancestors in a world that is full of faces--of Franny and others whose names she can’t remember, but whose stories she hears: Brigette, the woman who originally built the house in Bayeux; and ancient Elfgifu, who tells Severine a story so full of horror and love that Severine can hardly believe it is happening.
Roisin, Francois, Liam, and Severine’s voices are the core of the story. Sedgwick frames them around the different comets that appear throughout history: Halley’s Comet in 1066 and 1759, “flying low over the sea to the north”
(and again in 1986), and Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in 1994. Bayeux is a town crowded with Severine’s lonely ancestors, the spirits that constantly cry out for help. Life with François is clearly not enough for Severine and certainly not what she wants for him. Severine wants to show her son some of the world, far from the life of a normal childhood.
There’s nothing she can do to change the past, yet she’s positive that she can make a new future for herself and for François, a future with new places to explore and no ghosts to haunt them.
Drenching her novel in life, death, and dissatisfied spirits, Sedgwick pounds us with imagery: the comets as they fly by earth throughout the centuries; bleak Antarctica; bucolic, wintery Bayeux. The arrival of each comet is perhaps symbolic of a love that is always there but also of guilt for leaving, and also for a particular type of blame
that haunts all of Sedgwick’s characters. An integral symbol is the Bayeux tapestry which moved from England to France, eventually to Bayeux. At one stage, Severine takes François to visit the tapestry and shows him the image of Elfgifu’s daughter and all the daughters who have followed Halley’s comet, the legendary shooting star that is now enmeshed in golden thread.
While the novel is visually gorgeous and the descriptions of the comets are a delight, I thought the story became a bit tedious toward the end when Severine finds herself evermore entwined with the spirit world. Surprisingly, it is Roisin’s story that catapults through Francois life, acting like firewall against both his and his mother’s misery and despair. Switching between her characters’ voices--and
moving through a thousand years of history--Sedgwick captures the unique psychology of her “comet-seekers” where memories are long, secrets are hard to keep, and tragedy binds people together in strange and comforting ways.