10.14.2013

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 28 January 2014.


The Ghost of the
Mary Celeste
Sometimes the story isn't an event. Sometimes the story is the event's aftermath. At least, that's the case in Valerie Martin's The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. The ship was found--without its crew--off the coast of Spain early in December 1872. There are several theories about what happened to her: fumes from the distilled alcohol in the cargo, mutiny, pirates, ghosts. The case is still officially unsolved. Martin takes the story of the Mary Celeste's captain's ill-fated family to spin a tale about how the mystery captured the imagination of novelists and spiritualists.

The Briggs family of Marion, Massachusetts has always made its livelihood from the sea. But the sea has made the family pay fort the privilege. By the time Benjamin Briggs woos Sarah Cobb, it has already claimed two brothers, a sister, and numerous other relatives. They accept it stoically, but Benjamin is already planning to retire his captaincy before he takes command of the Mary Celeste. Martin doesn't change history in her book and Benjamin, his wife, his daughter, and the rest of the crew disappear into history.

Sarah Cobb Briggs,
the captain's wife
Martin jumps through years and narrators as she examines the post-Celeste world. We meet Arthur Conan Doyle, who writes a fictitious "statement" by a crewman who supposedly survived the incident. The story sparks his literary career. The tale travels across the Atlantic, where a medium threatens to sue the author (who was unknown at the time of publication) for his lies about the family and the ship. The medium's tantrum is witnessed by a journalist, another narrator. It doesn't take long to figure out who the medium really is, though Violet Petra lives under an assumed name. We learn more about her sad, deluded life through the journalist.

Benjamin Briggs
The book then jumps a few more years, from the early 1880s to the 1890s. Conan Doyle is famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories. He's almost forgotten his first story when a woman claiming to be Matilda Briggs visits him with a mysterious message and a code. She promises something special that might reveal the mystery of the Mary Celeste. The book ends with the fictional "Log of the Mary Celeste," written by Sarah Cobbs Briggs. It details the last weeks of the famous 1872 voyage. The log is a heartbreaking conclusion to the tale.

I was tempted to classify The Ghost of the Mary Celeste as nonfiction because its narrative syncs up so perfectly with the actual history. It's fiction just because Martin turned the history into a story, creating the log so that there would be a conclusion. The ship's own history wouldn't do. The Mary Celeste had a reputation as a bad luck ship, changing owners rapidly after 1872 and meeting an ignoble end in a failed insurance scam off the coast of GonĂ¢ve Island, Haiti.

From the title, you might expect this book to be about an actual haunting. Instead, the characters are haunted by the disappearance in different--but less supernatural--ways. The story follows Conan Doyle. The story dogs Violet Petra, providing a means to expose her lies. The story still haunts people today because we'll probably never know what really happened. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is a very clever, very unusual book.

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