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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 28, 2014
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I didn't care for all of the brief disjointed parts, it gave the book a very uneven feel. I dislike short stories and this novel felt like a grouping of related but very distinct short stories. If you like historical fiction and you like to read short stories the telling of this story might be something you'd enjoy. Unfortunately, I didn't care for it and only made it a third of the way through the book.
The character of Hannah, who is later understood to be Violet Petra, is a beautiful portrait of the development of an authentic spiritual medium, and the pitfalls awaiting such a personality. The journalist Phoebe Grant is likewise presented in depth, as a sympathetic skeptic. The interaction between them, and thereby the "dance" between those who believe in psychic phenomena and those who don't is beautifully portrayed.
This book was for me a strong antidote to my own perhaps over-romanticized notion of the joy of sailing in the era before satellite navigation and radio communication. I was also rather fascinated at the depiction of "family sailing" - it would not have occurred to me without Martin's narrative that there actually were captains who took their wives and children along on this type of voyage, and the oft-resulting tragedy.
In all, though I found this book an intriguing read, beautifully written with a flavor of the literary style of the time, so that the "diary excerpts" appeared to be absolutely authentic, I can't say that I found it deeply satisfying. That is perhaps because I am too dedicated to "happy endings" and put off by "loose ends" in the novel format. I suppose that may be why I'm leaning more towards the memoir genre than fiction at this point; I don't EXPECT a non-fiction account to be wrapped up in a neat little package. Again, this may be a fault of the reader rather than of the book itself. To those with no similar expectations, Martin's story should be an absolute delight.
In December of 1872, the cargo ship Mary Celeste was discovered under sail near the Azores. Nearly everything about it looked normal except that it was totally devoid of its crew and any passengers who may have been aboard when it left port. The quarters and cargo appeared undisturbed but for one missing lifeboat. No answer as to what happened has ever been found, although many theories have been proffered.
In her vivid imagining of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the seven who set out on the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin has created, among many things, a book within this book labeled “The Log of the Mary Celeste,” the title being a joke between the captain and his wife. In reality, it contains diary entries by the wife, in which she records the daily events leading up to the crucial time when all aboard went missing. In these pages, Martin’s readers are given a chance to experience life aboard a seagoing vessel as it cuts through stormy high seas and survives punishing waters whipped up by the pounding winds. It becomes easy to believe one could be swept off the deck in the blink of an eye, with no one having seen. But what does the author think happened to an entire ship’s crew?
Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes --- and a member of The Society for Psychical Research --- earlier wrote a story for a magazine under a pseudonym, proposing one possible scenario for the vanished men. It didn’t cover all of the facts that were known, though, and no one took it too seriously. Now, later, on a trip to the United States, he meets Miss Violet Petra, a sought-after seeress, and a cunning but often demure woman whose exact age --- along with her dubious talent --- seems hard to pin down. Doyle becomes quite entranced by her abilities and wishes to learn more about her. So it is that, after vigorous cajoling, Miss Petra agrees to travel to London where the Society plans to put her through stringent psychic testing. Although she seemed unafraid of exposure, she nonetheless failed to arrive in England --- another mysterious disappearance added to the lot.
The Atlantic Ocean claims many lives in this book, despite any confirmation that it was the body of water that took the crew of the ghost ship Mary Celeste. Yet the idea that a handful of men would jump into a lifeboat, take none of their belongings or any valuables that were known to be onboard, and then never be seen or heard from again makes little sense either. But no one has been able to present a satisfactory alternative to solve the mystery. So Valerie Martin decided to let her mind run where it would, weaving together several concurrent stories that come together in a loose sort of way and reach a conclusion that doesn’t quite satisfy.
While the storyline can come across as somewhat disjointed and a trifle confusing at times, the writing is skillful and the prose is often heartbreakingly beautiful. Despite these criticisms, THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE is worth a read.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers