I haven’t read anything by Valerie Martin since her creepy Mary Reilly, which of course was a reworking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I understand her novel Property won the Orange Prize, however, and The Ghost of the Mary Celeste was certainly worth reading, so I will look for some of her others.
This novel is based on the mysterious history of the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship that is famous for having been discovered in 1872 completely abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean. The captain, Benjamin Briggs, had his wife Sarah and two-year-old daughter Sophie aboard the ship, which had no other passengers, just the crew. No explanation has ever been found for the disappearance of everyone on board.
Martin’s book doesn’t so much attempt to offer us an explanation as add to the mystery surrounding this event.
The novel begins, though, with an earlier maritime tragedy. Captain Joseph Gibbs and his wife Maria go overboard in 1859 during a fearsome storm while she is trying to board a lifeboat.
Back at home after their deaths, Sallie Cobb is concerned about her younger sister Hannah, who claims their cousin Maria wants to take away her son Nathan, the little boy Hannah has been caring for since his parents were lost at sea. Maria’s family, the Gibbs, have been very unlucky at sea. Many of them having died there, including, of course, Maria. Sallie is worried about Hannah’s well-being, as she also claims that their mother, who died when Hannah was young, has been coming to talk to her.
Nathan only lives another few months, and Sallie is concerned about Hannah’s sorrow and her insistence that she has talked to both Maria and their mother. Sallie thinks that Hannah, who has always been fanciful, may be deranged from grief. Sallie is self-absorbed, however, for she is being courted by her childhood friend and cousin, Benjamin Briggs, Maria’s brother and also a sea captain, with whom she is in love.
The next section of the book leaps ahead in time to 1881 to follow Arthur Conan Doyle on a trip to Africa, where he is working as a ship’s doctor. It is during this trip that he decides to write a story about the Mary Celeste. Unfortunately, the story, which proposes a lurid explanation for the mystery, is understood by many to be true, even though he didn’t bother to research it and has almost all the facts wrong. Although he is taken aback by the response, especially of the victim’s families (whom he never considered), this story begins his writing career. Later he meets a spiritualist who has a connection with the Mary Celeste.
Through such meanderings, including documents, newspaper clippings, journals, a journalist’s memoir, and visits with spiritualists, we eventually find ourselves back on the Mary Celeste by means of Sallie’s journal. This journal has found its way into the hands of Conan Doyle.
This story is haunting and melancholy, and Martin is not so much interested in what exactly happened aboard the Mary Celeste as in the event’s repercussions. Evocatively written, this novel will carry you along with it.