Book review: The Ghost Of The Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

 

Intrigued by the story of the Mary Celeste – a ship found inexplicably abandoned in the middle of the Atlantic – I approached this novel seeking answers. What caused the crew to leave their sound ship to face the sea in a small lifeboat? Why were their clothes undisturbed? And what became of these 10 misadventurers, including a two-year-old girl, after they left the ship?

Martin approaches these questions slowly, navigating around them, seeming to give us irrelevant information. The title of the opening chapter, “A Disaster At Sea”, promises immediate answers, but here, as in much of this pastiche Victorian novel, Martin steers us off course. Yet The Ghost of The Mary Celeste is a novel which requires, and rewards patience.

The further the novel progresses, the less pressing seems the Mary Celeste and the fate of her crew. She appears now and then, like the ghost-ship of the title, fleeting and incidental. The ship and her ghosts become less important as Martin’s convincing characters become stronger, their human voices giving something solid to cling to in a novel of uncertainties.

The most compelling voice is that of Phoebe Grant, self-described as “that risible hobgoblin of the male novelist’s imagination: the female journalist”. Her narrative is lively; designed to inform, titillate and entertain. The story she tells is sensational, but despite this we trust her, her shrewd voice lending credibility to a tale which, entrusted to another teller, could seem overwrought.

The story she tells, of fragile clairvoyant Violet Petra, is captivating. Far from the cliched medium of 19th-century literature, Petra is shown as winning, beautiful, vulnerable and ultimately a victim of Victorian society’s obsession with the dead.

Arthur Conan Doyle also appears, first as a young doctor on a ship to Africa then, later, as a celebrated novelist whose innocent obsession with the Mary Celeste leads to darker waters than he had expected. He too will play his role in the ship’s tragedy, though he may never know it. The guessing game Martin invites you to play – about the clairvoyant, the ship and Conan Doyle – is irritating at first, but once you surrender, there’s a satisfaction in working it out.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is an unusual page turner from an Orange Prize-winning novelist, paying homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and Conan Doyle, while at the same subtly mocking the Victorian penchant for sensationalist literature.

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