Valerie Martin's The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is a wonderfully circuitous story that is part ghost story, part mystery with a dash of the puzzle to it. There are a number of seemingly disparate plots all intricately woven together each shedding a little more light on the question of just what happened to the ship the Mary Celeste, which was found abandoned yet completely intact off the coast of Spain in 1872.
Although I've never read Valerie Martin before, I had high expectations and happily I was not let down. This story could have gotten bogged down in all the the shifting of voices and adding of details, but in Martin's most capable hands I found the story utterly riveting. There is a wonderful sophistication in the way Martin tells this story with just the right amount of atmosphere and period details that feels light and airy and not as though she's 'trying too hard'. Yet she also presents her story in a way that makes the reader an active participant, one who needs to imagine and fill in the blanks. She gives you the 'facts' and then leaves it up to you to interpret them, which I found wholly satisfying.
The story begins and ends on board ships. Not the same ships, however. Much of the story, as a matter of fact takes place on the seas. Ghost story this may be, it is not one that will necessarily raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and you don't even need to believe in them, but there is certainly a sense of the power of the ocean and its unpredictability which creates not only suspense and tension but casts a dark shadow over the story.
The story is broken down into three main threads and moves mostly forward in time. There are connections between the three--they intermingle and collide and maybe even clash a little. First a shipwreck with all hands lost at sea. On board the Early Dawn is Captain Joseph Gibbs and his wife Maria. It's 1860. They've left their young son at home in Massachusetts. And here the story really begins.
The first thread, or set of characters live in a small New England town. Natie, now orphaned, is doted upon by his cousin Hannah, a dreamy young woman with an especially perceptive sense and maybe even a gift to hear voices of those no longer present. It's Hannah's elder sister Sallie who is the practical sibling and she will tell the final segment of the story. Remember it begins and ends on shipboard, but that will come much later in the story. They come from a family of sailors and two of their cousins, as a matter of fact, are just back from voyages, and one sets his sights on Sallie, an interest that is reciprocated.
And now I must change tacks, and so, too, does the story. In 1872 the ship the Mary Celeste is found floating with no one aboard. A ghost ship really. What happened to the crew? It is the topic of conversation across continents. Fanciful stories pop up of what might have happened to the ship and those on board. Arthur Conan Doyle is just a boy when news of the ghost ship spreads. Many years later it will serve as inspiration for a sensational story that he writes under a pen name, one of his first forays into the world of literature. Sherlock Holmes will come later. ACD is not unfamiliar with the life of a sailor as he himself was doctor on a ship sailing in the Arctic, a job he attended to with great relish.
And now to change tacks once again. The third thread concerns a young woman named Violet Petra who makes her living as a spiritualist. Well, there are those who make their living by charging a nominal fee to speak to the dead. Violet never takes money as that would lessen or cheapen what she does. But there are those who would take care of Violet, invite her into their homes to live and offer some sort of comfort as their loved ones are gone--so often taken away by tragic circumstances. To Violet Petra's fey presence is lady journalist Phoebe Grant's no nonsense sensibilities. She meets Miss Petra and thinks to do an exposé, or piece of investigative journalism, but in the end the two become friends of sorts.
No worries as I have given nothing away of importance in the story, only the barest briefest account of what can be expected, but you know the real storytelling is all in the details. The story is told through straightforward narrative, letters and diaries. Each thread is very well developed, not quite but almost as if each was a story all its own, but characters in one thread turn up in another. And there is always the little niggling sense that you've perhaps met someone before but under a different name perhaps. There are people who help tell the story but come and go adding only a few more facts and details to flesh out the story. This isn't a fluffy meringue of a book (even as it is a page turner), but by the end of it all you feel as though you've had a filling meal. There are still questions at the end, but for me they are something to ruminate over and wonder about. Sometimes telling a story doesn't mean giving away all the answers.
I'm not sure how much is fact and how much is fiction and what mysteries really do surround the Mary Celeste. Martin gives no afterword or explanations. And I think I won't go looking for more information. I'd rather leave the pleasurable sense of storytelling to linger. I have a feeling that this story is perhaps not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. I am sure I own a copy of Mary Reilly, which I am now really keen to read (though I am unsure where it lives on my shelves). For some reason I thought Valerie Martin was British and expected the story to be set entirely in England, so was surprised on several counts. Valerie Martin was born in Missouri as a matter of fact, and the Mary Celeste was a ship out of New York. She's won a number of awards including an Orange Prize. One of my great discoveries this year!