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Authors: Helen Sedgwick

Tags: #Historical, #Literary, #Fiction, #General

The Comet Seekers: A Novel

BOOK: The Comet Seekers: A Novel
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The Comet Seekers: A Novel
Helen Sedgwick
Harper (2016)
Rating: ★★★★☆
Tags: Fiction, Historical, Literary, General
Fictionttt Historicalttt Literaryttt Generalttt

A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic, that intertwines the past, present, and future of two lovers bound by the passing of great comets overhead and a coterie of remarkable ancestors.

Róisín and François are immediately drawn to each other when they meet at a remote research base on the frozen ice sheets of Antarctica. At first glance, the pair could not be more different. Older by a few years, Róisín, a daughter of Ireland and a peripatetic astronomer, joins the science team to observe the fracturing of a comet overhead. François, the base’s chef, has just left his birthplace in Bayeux, France, for only the second time in his life. Yet devastating tragedy and the longing for a fresh start, which they share, as well as an indelible but unknown bond that stretches back centuries, connect them to each other.

Helen Sedgwick carefully unfolds their surprisingly intertwined paths, moving forward and back through time to reveal how these lovers’ destinies have long been tied to each other by the skies—the arrival of comets great and small. In telling Róisín and François’s story, Sedgwick illuminates the lives of their ancestors, showing how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and how the way we choose to see the world can be as desolate or as beautiful as the comets themselves.

A mesmerizing, skillfully crafted, and emotionally perceptive novel that explores the choices we make, the connections we miss, and the ties that inextricably join our fates,
The Comet Seekers
reflects how the shifting cosmos unite us all through life, beyond death, and across the whole of time.

**

Dedication

For my family

Contents

 
  1. Dedication
  2. Contents
  3. 2017: Comet Giacobini
  4. 1976: Comet West
  5. 1759: Halley’s Comet
  6. 1986: Halley’s Comet
  7. 1066: Halley’s Comet
  8. 1994: Comet Shoemaker—Levy 9
  9. 1858: Donati’s Comet
  10. 1996: Comet Hyakutake
  11. 1079: The Embroidered Comet
  12. 1996: Comet Hale—Bopp
  13. 1997: Comet Hale—Bopp
  14. 1456: Halley’s Comet
  15. 2007: Comet McNaught
  16. 1927: Comet Skjellerup—Maristany
  17. 2011: Comet Lovejoy
  18. 1957: Comet Arend—Roland
  19. 2016: Comet PanSTARRS
  20. 1965: Comet Ikeya—Seki
  21. 2017: Comet Giacobini
  22. Acknowledgements
  23. About the Author
  24. Credits
  25. Copyright
  26. About the Publisher

2017

Comet Giacobini

THEY ARRIVE ON THE SNOW
during the last endless day of summer. Forty-eight hours of light and then, they gather outside to watch their first sunset of the South. The ice shelf they’re standing on is floating, slowly, towards the coast – will one day melt into the sea. There is nothing permanent about this never-ending white.

Róisín stamps her feet, watches the sky for the full twenty minutes of night, not that it ever gets dark. Dusk is the most she can hope for, this week at least; everything turning a golden red, the sun’s rays like torchlight through the curved walls of a child’s tent, the full moon opposite. It shines like a second sun but fainter, its reflected light a ghost of the star below the horizon.

During the day, some people run a marathon around the base – eight laps of the research station at minus ten degrees.
Róisín joins them on their final lap. Her legs feel heavy; gulps of air chill her lungs. The winner is lying flat on the snow at the finish line. When he sees her looking he smiles up at her, says: You should try it.

Maybe next time, she says.

His name is François.

He holds his hand over his eyes, trying to shield the glare.

He looks so young.

One hour, forty minutes of darkness, and someone is behind her. Five days she has been here, five days she has searched the sky alone. Róisín turns around.

What are you looking for?

François is here, wanting to see what she’s doing, to join in. She’s not sure how she feels about that; she did not come here to make friends. Róisín thinks about telling him so, asking him to leave, but for some reason she decides to let him stay. Beside her, François looks at the sky and exhales.

There’s a comet predicted, she says. It’s going to be very bright. But it’s too early. I mean, we’re too soon.

Because it’s not dark enough yet?

Yes. Well, that and other things.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

Above them, colours swirl like sea mist.

François stays where he is, doesn’t ask any more questions. He doesn’t take his eyes from the sky.

Róisín finds she has walked into the kitchen. She says she wants to help – it doesn’t feel right with François in there on his own, cooking for sixteen, even though he’s the chef. She offers to slice onions and retrieve diced meat from the freezer, watches his hands as he works. The smell is of roasting tomatoes and rosemary.

This was one of my favourites, he says, when I was a child.

Abbey Road
is playing on the tape deck.

Róisín thinks of soft-boiled eggs and soldiers. The sun is setting again.

Three hours, twenty minutes of darkness. The night is increasing by twenty minutes each day. It is building up to 21 March, when things will be perfectly balanced and there will be twelve hours of light and twelve hours of dark.

Every day, Róisín marks the calendar with a cross. Turning over the page – a photo of lights, traffic, people, noise, the cityscape a world away. She checks the footnote. It is Cape Town, and underneath Cape Town a day, three weeks away, is circled in blue.

She stands outside and listens through the muffled layer of her hood to the absolute silence of snow and ice dust and rock. Sometimes François comes outside to stand with her, but she never asks what they will be cooking the next day for dinner.

They hear on the radio that a group of sea lions have been spotted off the coast. The research team goes to investigate, Róisín and some of the others, taking cameras with long lenses, notebooks and food enough for two days. They’re not far from the coast but it still feels like a hike from the base; four hours’ walk in snow boots, pulling the sleigh, is not easy. There was training for this job, a series of tests you had to pass: physical, survival, psychological.

As they approach the coast they can see kelp gulls circling; something must have died. On arrival they see that something has. One of the sea lions has been killed in a fight, over territory or perhaps a female. They take photographs, look for any tags from other research teams, keep their distance. The red of its blood seems like the most vivid, most deeply coloured thing Róisín has seen for years.

There is a building by the coast, a square, basic sort of place, where they can sleep, or at least rest, before making the hike home tomorrow. Lying down, Róisín turns to face the wall and cannot see the concrete two inches from her eyes in the dark.

She’s alone. She’s walking towards the dead sea lion even though she knows it’s wrong; they are not allowed to get too close, not allowed to touch or interfere, but she sees the blood and has no choice – how did this happen? she asks the sea lion corpse, how did this happen? She tries to pick him up, but his skin is like whale blubber and she is repulsed.

She wakes, sick and longing, and full of guilt.

When they get back to the base she sees François in the kitchen. He turns, sees her; there is a look of wonder in his eyes that she wishes she understood, that she wants to share.

The door is only half closed and Róisín’s eyes only half shut when she hears a quiet tap tap at the window before sunrise. A rope has come loose from the sleigh they were using, snaking in the wind.

I heard it too, François whispers from the doorway, hardly making a sound. He is wearing thermal underwear and indoor boots, bobble hat and knitted gloves. She would have laughed, if her throat hadn’t been so dry.

He lies next to her on the bed and together they listen to the whip of the rope on glass, through snow. As the light dawns, she pulls off his hat.

SOMETIMES
,
LATE AT NIGHT
,
FRANÇOIS
writes to Severine, notepaper balanced on bent knees, head propped up on pillows. He describes the white, the snow, the sky so open he can see it curve around the Brunt ice shelf and meet the horizon in a swirl of frozen blue.
He describes the Halley VI research station, each module standing self-sufficient on legs that keep it elevated above the floating ice, a strange caterpillar of research labs and sleeping quarters with a central red hub where they all meet to talk and wait for snowstorms to pass. As the days edge closer to winter the pages of his letter take on a chill. He asks her how she is, if the sun is warm in Bayeux.

He pulls the cover over his legs, rubs the scar on his thumb and looks down at red fading to silver; the two colours of this world.

I hope it’s peaceful there, Mama, he writes.

It is peaceful here, but I think a storm might be brewing.

What am I supposed to see? he asks, taking the binoculars from his eyes.

Róisín smiles.

Well, at this magnification, all you can make out is the comet’s nucleus, which is the bright bit at the front . . .

He puts the binoculars back to his eyes, thinks about telling her he is not so young as she imagines.

. . . and the tail, which is the stream of dust and ice that gets blown out behind as it accelerates towards the sun.

So, it’s ice?

Ice and rock and maybe some bits of molecules, you know, the interplanetary junk that gets picked up along the way.

It’s not junk, he says, it’s extraordinary.

You remind me of someone from a long time ago.

He turns to look at her; she hasn’t mentioned her past before, and he doesn’t know if he should ask her questions about it now.

I used to watch the comets when I was a child, he says, with my mother.

She was a scientist?

No, he laughs, no. She just loved them. Do you think it’s strange to love something you don’t understand?

Róisín shakes her head. Just human, she says.

Why is next Monday circled on the calendar?

The comet will be at its brightest.

Is that all?

He puts the binoculars down. His tone changes.

Róisín?

François leaves his room and goes in search of something to dull his restlessness. They are playing cards in the central hub; he lingers by the door then retreats back the way he came. He doesn’t know why he’s behaving like this. He has been knocked off balance; and worse, he didn’t notice it happening.

BOOK: The Comet Seekers: A Novel
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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