The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
Valerie Martin’s new novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, is a bit like a star-studded variety show. It’s got a little bit of everything: maritime mystery, historical figures, supernatural subterfuge and… Sherlock Holmes?
The oddest part about the above description is that this book is more fact than fantasy.
Martin is a prize-winning master of historical fiction (Mary Reilly, Property), and this time around, she takes on the legendary ghost ship Mary Celeste, which was discovered abandoned, though still seaworthy, in 1872, her crew never to be seen again. This true-life mystery caught the attention of Martin, as well as another author (a young Arthur Conan Doyle published a fictionalized account of the ghost ship).
The terror is subtle in this novel. Martin makes use of found documents—journals, diaries, articles—to blend the factual with the fantastic. She meanders through time, takes on the social norms and issues of the day, and makes use of historical record real and imagined. She thrills us, certainly, but unfortunately leaves us with a tangled knot of loose ends.
There is no doubting the quality of the writing. Martin is a master storyteller, and her opening chapter is as harrowing as anything I’ve read this year. She places us in the heart of the Mary Celeste as it sails toward its destiny. Her words, like the storm, encroach, terrorize and ultimately consume, and after finishing the first chapter, I had to set the book aside for a while.
With equal skill, Martin details the lives of those left behind following the tragedy. There is heartbreak, romance and more tragedy on land. Every scene, every line of dialogue, every description is near perfect.
This is, however, a challenging book, not in content but in structure. I’m usually a fan of difficult reads—I take it as a sign of respect when an author, such as Martin, asks more of her readership than passive engagement. The narrative shifts through time, location and point of view. Indeed, there is a clever chronology, as the shipwreck segues to the survivor story segues to Doyle’s voyage segues to spiritualism. However, though they’re all linked by the Mary Celeste, the narratives feel more like vignettes. I found myself invested in each storyline, only to have it pulled out from under me with every new section. Nothing felt complete. As much as the writing drew me in, the shifting narrative pushed me away in equal measure.
This is just one reader’s opinion. Martin’s body of work speaks for itself. She is a gifted writer and storyteller, an astute chronicler of history with a great imagination. To any reader looking for a challenge, I say go for it. Get yourself a copy and enjoy the ride. For me, though, the novel is a bit like the Mary Celeste—seaworthy, but somehow I got lost along the way.