The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
When asked, most people will tell you they don’t believe in ghosts. I know this, I’ve asked. I also know that with a little pressing it emerges that everyone has a ghost story. In an otherwise ordinary life of toil and struggle there intruded in this house, in that room, on that night, something extraordinary, inexplicable, something not of this world.
In December of 1872, the cargo ship Mary Celeste was discovered under sail near the Azores. Nearly everything about it looked normal except that it was totally devoid of its crew and any passengers who may have been aboard when it left port. The quarters and cargo appeared undisturbed but for one missing lifeboat. No answer as to what happened has ever been found, although many theories have been proffered.
"While the storyline can come across as somewhat disjointed and a trifle confusing at times, the writing is skillful and the prose is often heartbreakingly beautiful."
In her vivid imagining of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the seven who set out on the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin has created, among many things, a book within this book labeled “The Log of the Mary Celeste,” the title being a joke between the captain and his wife. In reality, it contains diary entries by the wife, in which she records the daily events leading up to the crucial time when all aboard went missing. In these pages, Martin’s readers are given a chance to experience life aboard a seagoing vessel as it cuts through stormy high seas and survives punishing waters whipped up by the pounding winds. It becomes easy to believe one could be swept off the deck in the blink of an eye, with no one having seen. But what does the author think happened to an entire ship’s crew?
Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes --- and a member of The Society for Psychical Research --- earlier wrote a story for a magazine under a pseudonym, proposing one possible scenario for the vanished men. It didn’t cover all of the facts that were known, though, and no one took it too seriously. Now, later, on a trip to the United States, he meets Miss Violet Petra, a sought-after seeress, and a cunning but often demure woman whose exact age --- along with her dubious talent --- seems hard to pin down. Doyle becomes quite entranced by her abilities and wishes to learn more about her. So it is that, after vigorous cajoling, Miss Petra agrees to travel to London where the Society plans to put her through stringent psychic testing. Although she seemed unafraid of exposure, she nonetheless failed to arrive in England --- another mysterious disappearance added to the lot.
The Atlantic Ocean claims many lives in this book, despite any confirmation that it was the body of water that took the crew of the ghost ship Mary Celeste. Yet the idea that a handful of men would jump into a lifeboat, take none of their belongings or any valuables that were known to be onboard, and then never be seen or heard from again makes little sense either. But no one has been able to present a satisfactory alternative to solve the mystery. So Valerie Martin decided to let her mind run where it would, weaving together several concurrent stories that come together in a loose sort of way and reach a conclusion that doesn’t quite satisfy.
While the storyline can come across as somewhat disjointed and a trifle confusing at times, the writing is skillful and the prose is often heartbreakingly beautiful. Despite these criticisms, THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE is worth a read.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 31, 2014