Despite the almost universal outpouring of joy over The Comet Seekers, Helen Sedgwick’s tale of love and loss across the centuries and generations of a family from Bayeux in France, it wasn’t as enjoyable as expected. When first recommended for our international, virtual book club on Goodreads (join us!), I noted happily that it was another tale set in Antarctica. Sign me up for desolate landscapes and eternal snowstorms; nothing warms the heart more than reading of other people battling mortal cold. And while there were charms to the story, ultimately it left me feeling flat, unfulfilled and frost-bound.
That is not to say that there weren’t parts of The Comet Seekers to delight and enjoy. We first meet Róisín and François in Antarctica as a comet is about to pass. They cook and talk through the short nights, as they wait for the celestial being to begin its performance. And then Sedgwick takes us through a series of flashbacks as we meet wannabe-astrophysicist Róisín’s younger cousin Liam and François’s mother Severine, who has a granny who talks to ghosts. The ghosts are from the previous generations of Severine and François’s family and they date from more recent times to the 18th century and the woman who first built their house in Bayeux long before.
In 1976, as Comet West arrives, we see Róisín steal a kiss from Liam,
It is the swift, soft kiss of children, of cousins and best friends; of someone who has known you since the day you were born.
Ten years later, when Halley’s Comet shows up, they are lovers – Róisín sneaking away from school to meet Liam, who is around 17 to her 19. As the comet journeys overhead, she tells him she is leaving for London and university and he cries, ‘the sobs of a boy.’ Meanwhile, Severine’s granny has herself joined the ranks of ghosts and Severine has become a kind of watcher, able to converse with and witness the fates of the now-dead relatives: but only when there is a comet in the sky. There is another catch, that Severine’s custodianship of the spirits will only continue if she stays in Bayeux and so she must put her dreams from before François’s birth to one side:
…he’ll travel the world; we’ll travel the world together. There are things that I want to see with my own eyes, you know, and I intend to see them all.
But Severine feels at ease with her compromise, as she begins to learn more about the ghosts and their histories, the tales that have brought her to this house, this place and this family. These parts are especially intriguing and enjoyable, along with the progression of Róisín’s scientific career. The views through the huge telescopes she uses to watch comets crash into Jupiter are beautifully conveyed as well as the way she moves between departments and specialisms over the years. Sedgwick was a research physicist before writing The Comet Seekers and her passion for the subject and knowledge of the intricacies of academic life are a real highlight.
However, as the story progressed, I found myself becoming more and more uneasy. Róisín has left Liam behind and her musings on how everyone has a disastrous first love in their past caused an eyebrow to raise at her lack of introspection. Liam was younger than his cousin, vulnerable after his mother’s suicide and she pretty much knew that she was going to skedaddle, even as she first planted her lips on his. Guilt sends her back to Ireland and Liam’s farm to try to make a go of their relationship, despite the disbelief of colleagues, her mother’s disapproval and the whispers of the neighbours. But, of course, she can’t stick at it. And so again she goes, even after he has begged her to stay or promised to leave for anywhere she wishes, turning him down because:
…she wants to spend her life with people who are driven to explore the world, not those who are willing to follow.
This is where I lost all sympathy for Róisín as a character and became firmly a member of Team Liam. She has groomed him, screwed him, left him, come back, screwed him over and it is all seemingly fine because he is a bit boring and wedded to a particular place that holds some significance for him. If the genders were reversed, readers would be howling at the caddishness, but because of Róisín’s higher purpose, apparently she has an excuse for the disregarding of her inconvenient cousin. I found her behaviour appalling and was hoping for some reckoning with it, some insight into her callous treatment of him, but – aside from brief musings, including once that there is really no reason why first cousins cannot have children together and thus no rationale for society’s displeasure – Róisín never managed it.
As she ‘explores the universe,’ achieves respect and acclaim in her career, warnings come to her that Liam is not doing so well but they are all ignored. This affair has cut him off from the rest of his support network – Róisín’s family – and he drifts into despair and eventually destruction. It is grief and loss that sends Róisín off into the snows of Antarctica, but she still never goes deep enough.
I don’t know why. Nobody knows why, she says. I don’t think you get to find out why.
Really, Róisín? I thought. No inkling at all? For while they may have been over the age of consent by the time they started sleeping with each other, this is what grooming looks like: it isolates the younger person, distorts their view of love and relationships and leaves them unable to move beyond the abuse. If there is a reason why certain relationships are taboo – teacher-pupil, doctor-patient, blood relations – it is not solely because society is thinking ‘ICK,’ but due to the imbalance of power that lies therein. At the time, Liam may have been thinking, ‘Wahay!’ at the thought of sex with his older cousin – he was a teenage boy after all – but he remained no less deserving of protection than a young girl would be.
And so this is where I part ways with other reviews of The Comet Seekers. The two books it has been compared to most often are The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger and One Day by David Nicholls. So I also feel out of step with what are being sold as the great love stories of our time. To me, the first book was pretty close to the knuckle with its scenes of 36-year-old Henry meeting his six-year-old wife-to-be Clare and ‘hero’ Dexter in the second was the type of unrepentant rogue Emma would have been better off binning when they were still at university together.
In The Comet Seekers, through various coincidences, Róisín and François’s paths cross more than once and there is a family mystery which is telegraphed fairly obviously that makes them closer than total strangers (if not as close as Liam and Róisín). Again, it should have felt like mystical destiny bringing them together. Perhaps, for reasons of equality, readers should cheer on middle-aged Róisín finding love with younger man François. But I kept thinking of Liam, left like roadkill as the two stars orbit towards true love and happiness. Poor Liam.
On the French side of the tale, I was no less unsettled by Severine’s behaviour towards her son, François. Her decision to forego the pleasures of international travel for the chance to hang out with her ancestors every few years can be viewed as a metaphor for the more terrestrial compromises parents make. Grieving for her granny, she clutches at any opportunity to spend time with her, but almost throwaway comments about the impact on François’s life of this bargain are heartbreaking:
…the conversations she is having with herself are more captivating than the ones he wants to have with her.
… she would run through the house laughing with family but not notice him sitting there, on the top stair, sometimes, for hours.
It works as a commentary on the other pursuits that take parents away from their children or even on mental illness and the inability of the sufferer to judge the effect of it on loved ones but, again, I found myself thinking of François at the top of the staircase just as much as of Liam in his lonely farmhouse and feeling that the sacrifices were not fairly distributed. The influence of bodies passing in the skies, or the idea of actions or events being predestined, serves to let these two women off the hook for some terrible behaviour as they crash around, trailing fire and icy debris as they go.