Monday, March 31, 2014

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

Is this genre-bending book a ghost story? (There are lots of ghosts.) Is it an investigation of a real historical mystery? (What happened aboard the brigantine Mary Celeste in 1872, and why was it found floating derelict near Gibraltar, its crew and captain missing, but with no signs of a struggle and all the cargo intact?) Further mixing fact with fiction, it’s also the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s sensational account of the Mary Celeste that he wrote anonymously for a British literary journal, and a straight historical novel about a female journalist who investigates the Spiritualist movement in upstate New York (hence the ghosts). And I’m omitting a few other threads that wind their way through this intricately plotted, beautifully written novel.

Sometimes books like this, that lack a defined main character, can be difficult to connect with, and a reader can find herself trying to pin that role on someone specific. John Vernon, writing about this book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, assigns that role to Phoebe Grant, the journalist, whom he says is “at the novel’s heart.” I disagree. Grant may be the intellectual center, but the woman at the heart of the book is Sarah Briggs, the wife of the Mary Celeste’s captain, whose story opens and closes the book. She may get less ink than Phoebe Grant but her bittersweet tale (and her links to many of the other characters) help bind everything together into a coherent whole.

Confused yet? Don’t be. Martin is in complete control of all this material. She never loses her forward momentum, and never derails us with too much emphasis on one thing or another. It’s really brilliant and we all know how geekishly enthusiastic I get over complicated books that don’t disintegrate under their own weight. I don’t really understand why Valerie Martin isn’t more famous. Her book Property won the 2003 Orange Prize and her subsequent books have been positively reviewed, but I don’t see her name come up in the discussions where I’d expect to see it. Perhaps it’s because Martin never writes the same book twice--maybe it’s her versatility that makes her difficult to track.

(Book 5, 2013)


Anonymous said...

Funnily enough my husband and I were talking about the Mary Celeste only a few days ago - I forget what triggered the conversation, but I do remember first reading about this ship and the mystery when I was about 13 yrs old and picked up a copy of Reader's Digest in the dentist's waiting room!
Having read your thoughts about this book I am going to have to read it myself. Particularly as the book is by Valerie Martin. I absolutely agree she is not given the kudos she deserves as an author. Apart from 'Property' I really enjoyed reading 'Trespass' and 'Mary Reilly'.

isabel said...

I don't agree with you this time around. I've just finished listening to it on audio and felt that it rambled and lacked coherency. Sarah Briggs may have been the beginning and ending but she didn't tie the entire thing together. I was tired of Conan Doyle's part in it, it seemed to me that the author tried to pull his "charisma" in to give the whole spiritualist aspect of the story validity.

Becky Holmes said...

Isabel, I do agree with you that the Conan Doyle parts were the least satisfying. I think this would have been a tricky book to listen to because of the disparate parts. I wonder if you would have felt it was more coherent if you had read the print version.

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