Book review: The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick

Helen Sedgwick's debut novel reaches for the stars but eventually comes crashing to earth, writes Stuart Kelly

Helen Sedgwicks characters tend to tell, not show. Picture: Contributed
Helen Sedgwicks characters tend to tell, not show. Picture: Contributed

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick | Harvill Secker, 290pp, £12.99

We have had Magic Realism and Dirty Realism and Hysterical Realism; so here comes the next wave: Mimsical Realism. If Magic Realism was Houdini, Mimsical Realism is Paul Daniels. It’s a genre so devoid of intent, desire and jeopardy that it resembles a fly-wheel without a gear. It spins and spins and engages with nothing.

The Comet Seekers is emblematic of this new genre. It has a conceit, and is conceited. The plot concerns two people, Róisín and François. The cluster of diacritics on their names already seems a sign of more ornamentation then architecture. Róisín is Irish which means that all her relatives say “grand”, “to be sure” and “so it is” on a regular basis. François, being French, has to hear his relatives speak in English the whole time with the exception of a merde or grand-mère or “pas possible” to remind us they are French. The novel opens and closes with them both in Antarctica, watching a comet. It then fills in the various and variegated backstories, but this cuts the Achilles’ tendon of the novel in a way: we know at the outset where Róisín and François will end up.

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    Róisín has always been obsessed with the stars, and with her cousin Liam, who is trying to manage a failing farm. She looks up, he looks down – symbolism, geddit? François is stuck with his mother, Severine, who has the capacity to see ghosts from her family. These are strange ghosts. They fade out as ghosts tend to do, but we are told that “Great-Grandpa Paul-François… is having too much fun trying on Severine’s mother’s hats”. Can these ghosts interact with our reality or not? Given that part of the plot involves François’s scepticism about his mother’s time with the spirits, couldn’t she just have said “come in here and look, there’s hats flying around”?

    The connection between the two principal characters is the comets. Apparently the ghosts only come out when there is a comet blazing in the sky. It means we get even more back-stories, as the psychic link to the comet stretches back to 1066 and the Bayeux Tapestry, so we get in-set moments of the times the comets have passed beforehand. Now, there have been several excellent novels which try to weld the short story to the novel: Tom Bullough’s Addlands, Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, Sara Taylor’s The Shore, and the origin of then all – Felipe Alfau’s Locos. This tries to capture that extensive sense the “stories as novel” might provide, but since we do not care about the principal characters, we do not care about their histories. They seem like the DVD extras you never watch.

    The scientific material does not combine well with the airy-fairy flim-flam. If the entire point is that “the universe is pretty miraculous… and that is not something she wants to get lost among the detail”, then I’m sorry but I would like some detail other than a few paragraphs about binary stars and black holes. It seems to me very strange that contemporary Scottish literature has moved towards whimsy rather than urgency, to speaking for not speaking out, to spiralling into its own fantasies rather than grappling with reality in all its surrealism. It is as if all our novels now aspire to be Amélie and nobody wants to be Delicatessen.

    There is a dreadful externality to the characters – we are told what they feel, but struggle to glimpse them feeling it. They twitch like marionettes throughout. I have frequently said that all books have their own critical secret within them. In The Comet Seekers it is sorrowfully clear. “It’s like a fairy tale, New York, one sprinkled with a harsh reality but full of more surprises than she’d imagined”. Although the jacket cover tells us that the author has a Distinction in Creative Writing, it seems like she missed the lesson on “Show, Not Tell”.

    Time and again as I read about Róisín and François one question kept niggling at me: what is the purpose of this? There is tragedy and there is comedy, there is elegy and there is ecstasy. In the end, though, I felt it without purpose, a book which has some eloquent writing in it, and some engaging ideas, but is, in the end, a sugary confection of a novel; fey enough, but lacking substance, and with the hint of something calculatedly twee behind it all.