THE GHOST OF MARY CELESTE by Valerie Martin

Book Quote:

“She felt she had been created by the demands of others, by their insatiable appetite for something beyond ordinary life. They craved a world without death and they had spotted her, in their hunger, like wolves alert to any poor sheep that might stray from the fold and stand gazing ignorantly up at the stars.

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie  (JAN 30, 2014)

FACT: “The Mary Celeste,” (or “Marie Céleste” as it is fictionally referred to by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others after him), was a British-built American-owned merchant brigantine famous for having been discovered on 5 December 1872 in the Atlantic Ocean, between the Azores and Portugal, unmanned and apparently abandoned, (the one lifeboat was missing, along with its 7 member crew, the captain, his wife and small daughter). The ship was in seaworthy condition and still under sail heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar. She had been at sea for a month and its cargo and provisions were intact. The crew’s belongings including valuables were still in place. There was no sign of foul play. None of those on board was ever seen or heard from again and their disappearance is often cited as the greatest maritime mystery of all time. There was nothing written in the ship’s log to account for the vanishing. ” (Wikipedia entry)

I was riveted from page one by this very realistic fictional account of the “The Mary Celeste.” The story and some of the book’s fascinating characters are quite eerie and mysterious. There are scenes, especially those at sea, which are terrifyingly lifelike. I could hardly put the book down. Many have speculated and written about the real life story of this ghost ship, including investigative journalists and authors, one of whom is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a character here. There are many theories about her disappearance but none have proved to be true and none have proved to be false, either. For the seafaring families of New England who captained and crewed the ship, the nautical mystery has haunted them for generations. No one, to this day, knows what happened to “The Mary Celeste,” and all who sailed on her.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste opens with a vivid account of a shipwreck in which the captain and his wife, Marie, are lost overboard. Back in Massachusetts a thirteen year-old girl, a relative of the ill-fated couple, is convinced that she sees and hears the cries of her cousin Marie.

The reader is then introduced to the Briggs and Cobb families from Marion, Massachusetts. The two families are intimately connected in an intricate sort of way, which I won’t try to explain here. Let it suffice to say that the Briggs and Cobb children are cousins. The Briggs family has always made its livelihood from the sea, however by the time young Captain Benjamin Briggs marries his first cousin, Sarah, (Sallie), Cobb, his unfortunate family had already lost many members to the ocean. Benjamin plans to retire his captaincy after his marriage. However, he does decide to accept one more command and Sallie and their two year-old daughter Sophy accompany him on this last voyage. Their son, Arthur is left home with his paternal grandmother, “Mother Briggs.”

It is important to mention that Sallie has a younger sister, Hannah, with whom she is quite close. The fey Hannah “sees things.” She has strange dreams/nightmares and is quite fantastical. “As a child she always had her dreamy side. She talked to trees and made up stories. She wrote sweet poems about the dew being dropped from the drinking cups of fairies, or enchanted woods where elves had tea parties using mushrooms as tables.” However, with the loss of her beloved cousin Marie, 13 year-old Hannah sees and hears Marie calling to her. Her family disapproves of her “visions and fantasies.” Sallie rebukes her after one bout of almost hysterical lamentations that Marie is there and “wants to come inside.” Their father is concerned, naturally.

Late-19th-century spiritualism plays an important role here. Spiritualism, the belief that the dead communicate with the living, became a fad throughout America and Europe during the 1850s. Spiritualism was a cultural and religious phenomenon which swept through the sitting rooms and village halls of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Basically dead people were all the rage. Sallie’s and Hannah’s father, in particular, is worried about his youngest daughter’s fervent beliefs and visions. “It’s this insalubrious craze with talking to spirits: it’s loose in the world.” He fears that, as she grew older, Hannah would become involved in this movement.

Author Valerie Martin employs multiple voices, styles and points of view. She takes the reader through time and place, in a variety of means, to tell her tale through a straightforward, third person narrative, and also through her characters, their conversations, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, legal court findings, ship’s log, etc. We are introduced to a young Arthur Conan Doyle, who, intrigued by the entire incident of the ghost ship, writes a fictitious and “scurrilous story,” supposedly told to him by a crewman who said he survived the incident. The actual story, “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” was printed anonymously in the British journal Cornhill. The story sparked Doyle’s literary career. “He was thirty-five years-old. With scarcely a hint of what he might achieve, but driven by a furnace of ambition to strive in every field that opened before him. He made himself up.”

Doyle’s tale travels across the Atlantic to America where Violet Petra, a famous medium of extraordinary powers, reads it and threatens to sue Doyle for his lies about the Briggs family and the nautical mystery. And, Miss Petra, one of the famed spiritualists of her day, spiritual society’s darling, who is she? Has this inscrutable woman also invented herself?

Phoebe Grant, a journalist employed by the Philadelphia Sun is to investigate Violet Petra for fraud. The intelligent and business-like Miss Grant is a quick-witted skeptic who finds herself totally confounded upon meeting and speaking with the woman. They eventually become friends “of sorts.” She says this about Violet and her supporters,

“The spirits they peddled had no mystery; they were ghosts stripped of their otherness. In their cosmography, the dead were just like us and they were everywhere, waiting to give us yet more unsolicited advice.”

The books has several characters, the primary ones being Violet Petra, Mr. Doyle and Phoebe Grant, the ghost ship, and of course the sea. All the characters are eventually tied together by the “Mary Celeste.” The novel spans decades and the author fleshes out her characters and allows us to see how they grow and change.

I really enjoyed The Ghost of the Mary Celeste and am mystified by the mystery. Ms. Martin creates an extraordinary fiction from facts. This is a page-turner written with intelligence and originality. The author uses as much historical detail as possible and, in fact, at times the book reads more like a history than historical fiction. I was surprised by the ending. Although one has to use the imagination to figure out parts of the story, the finale is indeed unsuspected…at least by me. I am left with a head filled with questions. Kudos to Valerie Martin. I now want to read more of her books.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: Nan A. Talese (January 28, 2014)
REVIEWER: Jana Perskie
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Valerie Martin
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Another New England unsolved mystery:

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January 30, 2014 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Mystery/Suspense, NE & New York, y Award Winning Author

One Response

  1. Judi Clark - January 30, 2014

    Jana.. I highly recommend PROPERTY as your next Valerie Martin book.

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