Haunted characters struggle to find fulfillment.
In her ambitious but flawed debut novel, journalist, editor, and former research physicist Sedgwick leaps through time, from 1066 to the present, following the trajectories of her characters’ lives as various comets surge gloriously through the night skies. She focuses on four main characters: cousins Róisín and Liam are star-crossed lovers both because of their consanguinity and their unbridgeable differences. Róisín, an astronomer, wants to travel the world researching the cosmos; Liam is committed to staying on his family’s farm. The second pair is a mother and son, Severine and François. Even as a child, François longed to explore far-off places, from South American jungles to Antarctica’s “wild emptiness”; but Severine will not leave their native Bayeux, France, because she is surrounded there by 11 ghosts from her family’s long past. These ghosts are the novel’s liveliest characters: playful, teasing, and so comforting that Severine cannot live without them; they are more crucial to her than François. “Why should she have to choose,” she asks herself, “between her ghosts and her son?” Among the ghosts, Severine is especially attached to her grandmother, “who everyone thought was crazy, who made the world come alive, whose smile made Severine feel special, and loved.” Because Granny’s ghost treats her like a child, Severine seems infantilized—or, maybe, crazy. François can hardly make sense of his strange mother. Rather than allowing her characters to evolve, Sedgwick belabors their predicaments in chapter after chapter. The image of shooting stars suggests a theme: as Róisín explains, “All those stars we see...they’re dead already. They have exploded, rejected everything that they were, and the raw components, the elements they were made of, that is where life comes from.” But this idea of transformation is only barely hinted at, and, except for Severine, the characters persist in sadness.
Unlike shooting stars, Sedgwick’s yearning protagonists seem unable or unwilling to “shower the world with light.”