Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (2014), by Valerie Martin, is a historical and psychological thriller incorporating different mediums - newspaper accounts, court records, ship's logs, and diary entries. It is written in both first and third person narration. The disparate voices all revolve around one event - the discovery of the ship, the Mary Celeste, apparently abandoned in the North Atlantic near the Azores on December 4, 1872. According to the ship's log, she had been floating unmanned for three weeks. There was no sign of violence aboard the ship, her cargo was untouched, and the ship's sails were up. What became of the captain, his wife and two-year-old daughter, as well as the small crew, has been an unsolved mystery for the last 142 years.

The Mary Celeste's master was Benjamin Briggs, an experienced captain from a respected, seafaring family. But the book does not open with his story. Instead, it begins in 1859 with the ill-fated voyage of another ship - that carrying his aunt, Maria Gibbs, wife of the captain. The spell-binding description of the turbulent, unpredictable ocean and what it means to be the lone woman on a ship of men, is rendered in captivating prose. The reader is hooked from the first page.

The author then draws us into the life of the future wife of Benjamin Briggs - Sallie. Sallie is one of two daughters - the rational and cheerful one. Her younger sister, thirteen-year-old Hannah, has become the substitute mother of the child left orphaned by the 1859 tragedy. Hannah is plagued by visions of ghosts, including that of Maria Gibbs. She believes the ghost wishes to reclaim her son and that she eventually does. The reader, from the very first chapter, is left to wonder if the ghost she sees is real or a figment of an unstable mind.

Later, the story shifts to the investigations of  Phoebe Grant, a female journalist and skeptic researching Spiritualism. Through her work, she meets Hannah (now called Violet Petra) and the writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, an ardent Spiritualist. Now a young woman, Hannah has become a medium, living in the homes of wealthy families and sponsoring seances for them. Over the years, Phoebe becomes her only true friend, albeit an unbelieving one. As she watches a group of people paying money to a "spirit photographer" who promises to capture the spirit of their deceased in the picture he takes of them, Phoebe's distaste for the charlotanism reaches its peak. She writes:

A powerful sensation of revulsion rose up in me. Who were these bizarre, complacent people, these obstinate monomaniacs fixated on the patently absurd" Amid all this natural beauty, what most enlivened them was their conviction that death was not momentous, that life, as they put it, was continuous. The spirits they peddled had no mystery; they were ghosts stripped of their otherness. In their cosmography, the dead were just like us and they were everywhere, waiting to give us yet more unsolicited advice. That and the news that they were happy being dead, that life as they now lived it was better than it had been when they walked the green earth disporting themselves in flesh and blood. (p. 167)

Valerie Martin's depiction of these two women, Phoebe and Hannah - both of whom share an outsider status in society - substantiates central themes of the book. Martin explores the role of women in Victorian society as well as the place of faith vs. science, reason vs. superstition. To paraphrase Christobel Kent of The Guardian in his eloquent review: At a time when the spector of death was everywhere and Tennyson's depiction of grief and mourning in his poem, In Memorium, becomes the apogee of the era, Martin "evokes a world suspended between faith and reason, in which 'the other side' is quite real--and always beckoning."

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