The Comet Seekers

Helen Sedgwick

PUBLISHED 08.25.2016

01.20.2019 – 01.26.2019

GENRE Fiction

The Luminaries
A Tale For The Time Being


other orbiting stories

In orbit

One of the things I loved about The World to Come was how it felt both familiar and unusual at once, which is a tough line to toe at any time but especially in contemporary fiction (for lack of a better genre identifier) because there are no visual cues to use as there would be in television or movies and not a lot of worldbuilding as there would be in scifi or fantasy writing. The Comet Seekers manages to toe this same line – it is a deeply touching novel; more lyrical than slow-moving; structured scientifically but free-flowing, switching from time period to time period fluidly. 

This book, on paper, has a lot going on. There’s astronomy – and not just astronomy 101, I actually learned stuff – and yet also 11th century French history, and also ghosts. (This specific combination reminds me of how Ruth Ozeki is able to blend science, the maybe-supernatural, and reality in one accessible-but-not-condescending package.) It would be easy for this book to buckle under the weight of this stuff, but Sedgwick grounds it with a sincerity and specificity that somehow makes the whole thing work.

Unusual: the details.

I feel obligated to mention a totally unique and missable thing, but one that speaks to the details in this book: Ælfgifu’s chapters, set in the 11th century, are typeset with a right rag and the rest of the book is justified (as is more standard). Who cares, except that it gets at how Sedgwick is able to keep all of her time periods fresh, consistent, and distinct all at once.

So. Familiar: telling a story using different time periods. People’s lives circling until they come together. The comforting sense of inevitability, the “whoa!” of realization, as when you get that the woman Francois saw was Roisin. Unusual: the details. The structure, the settings, the time periods itself (can’t recall reading a lot about the Bayeux Tapestry in the same book as Antarctica, that’s for sure). The details of how these two keep approaching each other and disappearing again, like the comets they keep watching.