by Jan DeBlieu; Washington, D.C., Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005, 200 pages, $23
Dr. O'Malley is acting assistant professor and adjunct faculty in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
This book is rather uneven. Jan DeBlieu has already shown her mettle by winning the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Natural History Writing for a previous novel WIND, but Year of the Comets appears to be quite scattered at times. DeBlieu states that the book is inspired by her husband Jeff's descent into severe depression after the death of his mother. This theme is never truly realized in the narrative. It seems as if the chronic depression of her husband gave permission for the author to write a book about her newly discovered knowledge and awe about the stars and comets in our universe.
The author displays a fine turn of phrase with examples like: "All my life I have loved the stars and the planets, without really knowing anything about them. Orion, the Big Dipper, the red glow of Venus on the horizon at dusk, the misty lights of the Milky Way spread like a knife's worth of jam across the sky."
The minute details about stars and comets at some points read like a rather turgid regurgitation of an astronomy textbook written for a student essay. The journey into the stars seems like a somewhat transparent way for the author to avoid dealing with the complexity of her husband's bereavement reaction, which later precipitates a major depression. As one progresses into the disjointed narrative, one cannot help but notice the author's avoidance and almost complete lack of empathy for her husband's emotional turmoil. It is as if his turmoil is a rather irritating inconvenience in her search for life and meaning at four in the morning as she sits in an empty parking lot looking at the trail of the comet Hale-Bopp.
The medical and psychiatric theories regarding depression and its treatment are dismissed in a perfunctory four pages. At one stage the author betrays herself. "But if Jeff was clinically depressed, if he hadn't responded to previous rounds of antidepressants, if he was worn out by the act of going through his days, what did that say about his life? I wasn't sure I wanted to know."
Instead the author chooses to plunge into the intellectual discussion between Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking, which centers around the existential question "If you throw an encyclopedia into a black hole, does all that energy and knowledge disappear?" The ironic parallel between her husband's life knowledge and the black hole of depression he endures are never fully appreciated.
In the final analysis Year of the Comet is actually two books masquerading as one. One is a very detailed, sometimes pedantic, exposition of the stars and the universe and the unanswered questions that they pose about humankind's very existence. The other is a true book of loss and sadness, which every now and again appears like a rapidly disappearing shooting star. This second book is the story of a partnership of Siamese twins—to use the author's phrase—uncoupled by a fathomless depression which knows no boundaries. This second book keeps bringing darkness when the author craves only light. It is reminiscent of Pozzo's lines in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: "We all give birth astride a grave. The light gleams an instant, then it is night once more."
Maybe it was easier for Jan DeBlieu to run away to the stars and the moon than dwell on the dark earth with her life partner. In many ways this disconnected story serves as a cautionary tale for mental health professionals who have to deal with the legacy of melancholia, not just in the person suffering it but also in the significant others in his or her life.