helen sedgwick’s the comet seekers

Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers

I’ve always been fascinated by the night sky. While I wouldn’t describe myself as any kind of scholar, at all, I often find myself listlessly staring at the darkness overhead from my window. Peering to see any twinkles of light. The light pollution where I live obscures anything but the brightest of objects on most nights, so most of the time only the moon is visible. Sitting in front of said window as I type this, at 8pm on a chill January evening in Scotland, I can see no stars. The sky has taken on a red glow, beginning and ending somewhere beyond my vision.

It is a joy, then, to read a novel where the night sky is so vivid, so alive, that it lights up every page. Róisín is a scientist whose passion for the stars, comets in particular, propels her forward. François is a chef, largely unaware that his families history is tied to the passage of those same comets across the night sky. The appearance of these chunks of rock and ice above the earth ties the novel together, and ultimately Róisín and François to each other.

Full disclosure: I worked with the author of this novel for a year or two, and count her very much as a friend. While as always this isn’t a review of the book, as such, I would just like to point out that I think it is fantastic and one of the best I’ve read in years. Buy it, read it. It will bring you joy. I might be biased, but I’m also correct.

The narrative leaps between moments in time, back then forward then back again. Each jump accounts for the passage of a comet across the heavens. 2017, Antarctica, Comet Giacobini. 1456, Hayley’s Comet, France. 1996, Comet Hyakutake, Ireland. We experience moments, rather than fully formed stories, that build something cohesive, but not complete. A whole, with many of its individual parts unfinished. The panels we are allowed to glimpse that make up the tapestries of these lives don’t tell us who they are, but arouse possibilities of who they could be. The novel does finish, quite literally. There’s a back cover. But it is a narrative that also, in a very real sense, does not end.

There is something oppressively finite about endings. That reads like a stupid proposition to make, but bear with me. A dull ending to a dull book is forgotten almost immediately. A satisfying ending to an enjoyed novel gives a sense of contentment to the reader, for a time, but ultimately that too fades. The most heinous is a dismal ending to an otherwise outstanding novel. The disappointment is felt so precisely because of the promise that was contained within its pages before it collapsed into a quagmire. It’s that promise that’s most exciting, that generates the most genuine feeling, not just in novels but I think in most things. The ending produced by our actions might be satisfactory, might even elate us, but it never quite matches the adrenaline of the moments right before it came to pass. As we stand on the precipice, inch closer, it’s not the factual end that inspires wonder in us but the possibilities.

It’s the knowledge that no matter how much she knows about celestial bodies the scope of what she does not is almost infinitely vast that inspires in Róisín her ambition, her drive to chase them wherever they might lead her. That her and François’ tale drifts in and then out of our lives again, like the comets soaring across the night sky, is what captures us. There is no definitive sense of an ending. Go anywhere, do anything, the choice is still their’s as the reader closes the book. Ultimately, that’s what this novel is. The moment, before we reach our final destination, when anything is still possible.