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Review of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste - Valerie Martin

The Mary Celeste was a merchant ship discovered in December, 1872, under sail heading towards the Strait of Gibraltar. No one was on board. With one lifeboat missing, the ship was presumed abandoned. Strangely, though, there was no indication of what caused the captain to leave the ship, along with his wife, two year old daughter, and seven crew members. There were no signs of a struggle, there was plenty of food and water, and the ship was still seaworthy. 


Engraving of the Mary Celeste at the time of discovery (Wikipedia)

The mystery of the Mary Celeste caught the public’s attention at the time, but interest surged when a short story was published in 1884 in Cornhill Magazine. Entitled “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” the fictional tale was based on the mystery of the missing ship. The anonymous author was the twenty-four year old Arthur Conan Doyle, still three years away from publishing his first Sherlock Holmes story.

NPG Ax27656, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (Wikipedia)

Cornhill Magazine

“J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” in Cornhill Magazine (Internet Archive)

Valerie Martin’s novel The Ghost of the Mary Celeste draws on these historical events. She addresses the mystery of the Mary Celeste’s fate, of course, but in a way it is almost incidental to the numerous other puzzles here. Martin interweaves tales of shipwrecks, a family that seems cursed by its association with the sea, a to-be-famous writer, and the Victorian world of the occult, replete with spiritualism, mediums, and charlatans.

Martin tells these stories from different points of view, giving us little glimpses of the whole through the eyes of narrators with varying degrees of reliability. Some of these characters are more distant from the central events than others, but each is carefully drawn and feels fully realized. The character portrayals are convincing for both the historical figures and the purely fictional characters, an important trick in historical fiction. If I didn’t know in advance who was an actual person, I don’t think I would have been able to distinguish from the story, which is as it should be. 

I expected this novel to be a re-imagining of what could have happened to the ill-fated ship. It turned out to be less linear and more ambiguous than I thought it would be, and, ultimately, more intriguing. 

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Doubleday Books.