Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

What is beyond

Rather than being a straightforward tale of the abandoned ship, the Mary Celeste, this novel is a collection of narratives, apparently at first only slightly connected with each other and with the missing ship. The book begins with a loving young sea captain and his wife who then shockingly drown. The second section is the diary of Sarah Cobb, the cousin of the young man who drowned in the first section, describing her life as a member of a prominent seafaring family from Marion, Massachusetts. She is concerned about her younger sister Hannah, who is attracted to the newfangled trend of spiritualism. The final scene is Sarah discovering her sister deep in a spiritualist trance. Then comes press clippings from the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, a description of an African voyage young Arthur Conan Doyle took, a description of Cornhill magazine and the story Arthur Conan Doyle published about the disappearance of the “Marie Celeste”. That section ends with a young journalist and her friend reading the spooky story. The next part is narrated by the journalist, Phoebe Grant and tells the story of her encounters with the famous spiritualist Violet Petra, a woman who survives by being a guest of various rich patronesses. That is followed by a section about Arthur Conan Doyle, now a rich skeptic touring American, hating his Sherlock Holmes fame. He becomes intrigued by Violet Petra. Little by little, the reader starts to put the pieces together.

This novel is not really about the Mary Celeste. It’s a story about telling a story, (or maybe a story about the Victorian mind). It’s a story about voices from the past.   Maybe some of these are real, maybe some aren't.  The story is fragmented, yet legitimately scary. (It gave me a nightmare.) One thing Valerie Martin is good at is building tension to a climax. She also has no compunction about killing characters off. The interesting structure, which takes a little while to comprehend, might throw off a reader who was interested in more red meat. (Like what happened to the Mary Celeste.)

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