I had a feeling that this (slightly) fictionalised account of the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste was going to be just my cup of tea, and I was right. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Valerie Martin’s books in the past but this is by far my favourite.
Martin delves into the family background of the real captain of the vessel, Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah and daughter Sophie who were lost with him on that fateful voyage. The family had already been blighted by the loss of many members at sea when Briggs and his wife set sail from New York, headed for Gibraltar with a cargo of alcohol on board. In Martin’s version of events, Briggs is a kind-hearted but respected captain, a teetotaller who would never have allowed his crew to drink (drunkenness is one of many theories which abound as to why the crew abandoned the ship).
Extracts from diaries, newspaper articles and ships logs are interspersed with the narrative, giving the reader a real feeling of being part of the investigation. Central to the storyline is the involvement of erstwhile Victorian author/ghost hunter/psychic researcher Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is drawn into the affair whilst investigating the claims of the enigmatic young psychic, Violet Petra. There’s a fascinating insight into Doyle’s early life as a ship’s doctor on an arctic whaling fleet, and his emerging interest in the supernatural.
Fittingly there are no easy answers and the end of the book, and I was slightly disappointed at the lack of an Author’s Note at the end of the book as I would have liked to have learned more about Martin’s research and how closely she chose to stick to the known facts (such as they are). However, a bit of googling after finishing the book soon satisfied my curiosity.
Firstly, it should be said that this isn’t a book for anyone who likes their narratives to be straightforward, transparent, and with all questions neatly tied up by the end. Instead, this is elusive, subtle and mysterious – and one of the themes of the book seems to be the sometimes inexplicable nature of human life and death.
The narrative is organised like a relay race as the story-telling baton is passed between narrators: sometimes the connections are very clear, other times a little more opaque. At the heart of the tale is the sea which is both vast and unknowable in itself, and also serves as a symbol for all that is enigmatic and inexplicable about human life.
Some of the stories are almost unbearably tragic, and take their power from the light touch of the author who delineates a whole relationship from the small moments of daily life – and this book contains one of the most human, funny and celebratory depictions of a Victorian wedding night that I have ever read.
Martin is always a sensitive, delicate and perceptive writer, and there is a lovely luminous quality to her prose, whether she’s writing of first love, or sea-sickness or death. She tells the story through a variety of written media: the implied fiction of Conan Doyle, a journalist’s memoir, a journal – and the story stretches from 1859 to 1898. The mystery of the Mary Celeste weaves through all the tales and, though there is a suggestion of what ‘really’ happened, the ‘solution’ is itself a fictional one.
Ultimately, this isn’t about solving the (or any) mystery – instead it’s a gorgeously rendered depiction of the mysteries of life and death.
I read and thoroughly enjoyed another book by this author, Mary Reilly, and looked forward to this new release.
I’m not sure what I expected from this book, but everybody knows the story of the Mary Celeste, right? Well, no, not in the way that it is presented in this brilliant book. The book is a delight; an almost historical discovery story, where evidence is presented as it falls for the reader to digest. There is no table of contents indicating the different sections in the book, so each narrative and format comes as a surprise to the reader, and the ground seems to shift under the reader’s perceptions with each section as it unfolds.
We start with a short narrative of the voyage of the Brig Early Dawn in 1859, and the abrupt end to its voyage. We then move to excerpts from a journal kept in 1860 by Sarah, worried about her sister Hannah. By now I was wondering where on earth this story was going, but do keep with it, because it becomes even more intriguing. Next, we are presented with documents from 1872 and 1873 about the recovery of the Mary Celeste. With no interpretation of these documents, we are then thrown into a narrative of Arthur Conan Doyle as he takes a journey as ship’s doctor on the steamer Mayuma, bound for Africa. Then we read of the publication of the magazine Cornhill with an article on “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” about the Mary Celeste. By now, we are about 100 pages into the book, and the Mary Celeste is sighing like a quiet whisper through the pages. Totally hooked, the reader dives further into this historical mystery story. We get more personal recollections, more glimpses into lives that may or may not touch on those on the Mary Celeste. But how does this all add up?
There are no great unveilings of conspiracy theories or alien abductions here; rather what the reader has is touches of life over several decades, and at the end we are led very cleverly into a revelation; but is it really? The tale is more in what is not told than in what is told; a story by glance, by omission, by inference is unfolded for the reader’s own detective work. This is a hugely enjoyable book; the author has taken a story about which probably everybody has their own ‘knowledge’ and/or theory, and has offered a totally unique viewpoint from which to view the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste, and what happened on its last voyage. Totally recommended.
on 30 July 2015
I was really, really looking forward to reading this after seeing it recommended by Margaret Atwood on Twitter - however, it was a bit of a disappointment. First off, I found it a difficult book to read. It was slow at first and I couldn't determine where it was going. To be honest, I nearly gave up a couple of times, but I stuck with it because I hate to give up on a book once I've started. The story was confusing and a bit all over the place in the narrative - I struggled to remember the characters names because they'd go out of the action for a very long time and then suddenly crop up again (with, in some cases, a different name). I suspect that the novel was trying to do something clever and be one of those circular narrative so that when you reach the end you can immediately turn to the beginning again and start reading all over. Sadly, I didn't care enough about it to go through it all over again.
There was some good writing in here - I liked the way the spirits were as banal and boring as the living were and I liked the way that the author solved the mystery of the Mary Celeste without actually solving it (I was wondering how she would address this, being as I believe it is still something of a mystery today). This was probably a really well researched story but sadly that's what it read like - there wasn't that much magic in there and for that reason, I found it a bit dull. Was glad when I got to the end.
There is probably no other ship out there that has had more written about it be it truth or fiction in one form or another than the Mary Celeste and whilst no one will ever really know what happened, author Valerie Martin has taken the reader on a journey based around the real lives of those involved. Its fascinating reading and all round generates an overall picture that will give the reader a completely new look at the mystery.
Its quirky, I love the writing style and the prose just flows from the page. All round it’s a cracking book and one that I had no problem immersing myself within. A great piece.
on 2 September 2014
Wonderful storytelling which takes the form of a well written and thoroughly engaging account of the Mary Celeste which blends some facts with fiction. The book takes the form of a series of stories which are cleverly connected using well drawn characters and the inclusion of Conan Doyle is really well handled. Whilst there is plenty of supernatural atmosphere and suspense these aspects form a backdrop to the experiences of love and loss and essentially the stories that people weave in order to deal with them. This, in my opinion, is the real strength of the book and what makes it so affecting for the reader.
on 23 September 2015
Fabulous storytelling that blends fact and fiction to produce a compelling and entertaining tale.
The narrative is made up of letters, diaries and log of the Mary Celeste itself. You might not get answers to the enigma of the Mary Celeste but you will experience a haunting novel of death and impending doom dazzlingly written
Valerie Martin cleverly uses the unsolved mystery of the 'Mary Celeste' - the ship found floating adrift off Gibraltar in 1872, under full sail and with its cargo intact, but seemingly abandoned - to inspire her latest novel. To this day, there is no firm answer as to what happened to the crew, which included Captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife, Sallie, and their two-year-old daughter Sophy - however the author begins her tale rather spectacularly with the tragic loss at sea of another captain and his wife, Maria, the aunt of Benjamin Briggs, and then moves to the story of Benjamin's relationship with his cousin Sallie, and Sallie's sister, Hannah, a young girl who claims to be in contact with the spirit of the drowned Maria.
Our story then takes us off on a sea voyage with Arthur Conan Doyle, before his creation of Sherlock Holmes, and subsequent to his adventure aboard ship, we learn of a story published in the 'Cornhill Magazine', supposedly written by a Dr. Jephson and purporting to solve the mystery surrounding the Mary Celeste, but is in fact a fictionalised account by Conan Doyle. Reading this story in the magazine is Phoebe Grant, an American journalist investigating the Spiritualist movement who comes into contact with famous American clairvoyant, Violet Petra (a pseudonym), a young woman who seems to be sensitive to the story of the 'Mary Celeste'.
Filled with interesting characters, this is an intricate, intriguing and entertaining novel; it's also very attractively presented with its semi-opaque cover revealing the ghostly silhouette of a ship drifting on the ocean, and although there is a fair amount about spiritualism in the narrative, it is not presented in a sensationalist way, and this book is not really about ghosts or spiritualists. Written in a semi-epistolary style, with extracts from journals, documents and from the log of the 'Mary Celeste', and with some very vivid descriptions of the vagaries of the ocean, this novel may not solve the greatest of maritime mysteries, but it is a haunting and very atmospheric story of love and loss, and of how we create our own fictions to enable us to cope with what life throws at us. Recommended.
on 27 August 2014
I found this book confusing to read and difficult to follow. Characters seemed to come and go with no explanation. I understand its a ghost story, but I don't think it hangs together as a narrative. The ending doesn't explain anything.
I don't often make impulse purchases with new contemporary fiction, from authors I've not read before. However even just hearing mention of the title of this was enough to half convince me; the rest of the work was done by a positive review. A review I am entirely in accordance with.
This is a ghost story. It's a story about the dead and the living, and about love. It's a story about how tragedies spawn other tragedies and are linked to them across generations. It's a gripping novel that promises to (perhaps) unravel a mystery that's gnawed at people's attention for nearly two hundred years. I am as much intrigued by the mystery of the Mary Celeste as the next reader is, and it's a fantastic premise to build a novel around I must say (doubtless it's been done before, but I don't know of it). The ghost of the Mary Celeste haunts the pages of this book, the ghost ship recedes in and out of its waters as the stories dance around it, slips between the pages, is gone one minute then there the next. Then rears its head again in the final 50 pages.
The foremost strength about this book (other than the narrative power of the writing, and its intriguing structure) is the characters. They are fantastic, particularly Violet whom I adored entirely. I would endorse this book strongly for so many reasons, I enjoyed it a great great deal.