We first meet Roísín as a young girl in 1970s Ireland, where she tries to indoctrinate her cousin Liam in the sights and facts of the nighttime sky, which happen to include a passing comet. Each chapter is named for a comet’s visit, and the dates range from 1079 to 2017. Comets attract scientific attention, while also heralding visits of another kind. Severine, who lives in the Normandy town of Bayeux, is visited by ghosts as each comet makes its appearance. These ghosts are her ancestors, and each has a personality and a story of their own. These ghosts carry an important load in the novel, and occupy much of Severine’s attention, to the detriment of her son François.
The conceit of the comets leavens the narrative while going it a framework. It expands the scope of the story and its imagined implications. Even this grand scale is expanded by Roísín’s shifting astronomical focus: from comets to exoplanets, to galaxies so far away they echo the beginning of the universe. And this is just her problem: with her wanderlust and her eyes on the stars, she forces away a devoted lover who will not quit his roots.
Severine meanwhile has visited the Bayeux Tapestry often, with its fanciful depiction of Halley’s Comet and its recounting of the Battle of Hastings. And the ghosts from France and Ireland visit her frequently and await her participation in their collective story.
These two protagonists occupy the lion’s share of the narrative: Roísín leaves her love to roam far and wide; Severine cannot bring herself to leave Bayeux and her ghosts, and thus continually disappoints her son’s desire to see the world. The two threads balance and contrast perfectly in an elegant construct that supports Ms. Sedgewick’s theme of the rarity and complexity of human love.
Her language does the same. There’s a restraint and a lilt that draws out the poignancy of many of the transactions. Time and again I’ve seen it: plain and quiet language leverages the weightiest themes into focus; plain language for complex ideas. This book is beautifully made and well worth your attention.