by Valerie Martin
Everyone’s heard of a ghost ship, right? It drifts into a port with a full cargo and no crew, shocking the locals and horrifying the families of those who were aboard. One of the world’s most famous ghost ships is the Mary Celeste, captained by Benjamin Briggs. When it was found adrift off the coast of the Azores in 1872, the tale spread across the world. Some years later, a heavily fictionalized version of the mystery helped launch the career of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle, while across the seas in New England a Spiritualist medium with her own connections to the cursed ship gains fame for her effective communication with spirits. As their paths intertwine with a determined female journalist named Phoebe Grant and the surviving members of the Briggs family, new mysteries surface in the death-obsessed world of the Spiritualists.
Told not in a straightforward narrative but in a series of vignettes, diary entries, and other bits of ephemera, the book has a disjointed quality that supports the mysterious atmosphere. I always felt slightly off-balance, which seemed appropriate to both the rocking motions of a ship at sea and the mystical Summerland where the Spiritualists claim spirits dwell. Martin’s words paint a vivid picture of the summer camp atmosphere of Lake Pleasant, where Phoebe meets the medium Violet Petra and tries to discern her hidden past. The book weaves a spell of time and place, drawing me in again and again.
But it’s this same quality that also proved challenging. Martin is rarely explicit, leaving it up to the reader to follow connections and to solve the enigmas of Violet Petra and the Mary Celeste and other unexplained characters and events. There is little attempt at resolution; when the story ends, it is as sudden as the ship’s disappearance. Plot threads are not tied up neatly, but left wherever they happened to unravel. It’s unconventional, and mildly frustrating.
Characters often seem quite flat. Phoebe Grant, for example, is a female journalist, and her independence and cleverness initially seem promising. But we only ever experience her in that role of journalist; there are brief flashes of the rest of her life but it’s never really fleshed out. Likewise, for all the time spent with Doyle, we actually don’t learn that much about him. He’s like an actor wearing the mask of a genial, gentleman author – and that facade is never dropped even to the readers.
When I finished the book, I felt as though I had been invited to a feast. I had entered the room where the food was laid out, and smelled the aroma of a hundred delicious things. But the food, when eaten, was cold and bland, and the meal was ultimately unsatisfying, in spite of its beauty.
3 out of 5 stars
To read more about The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Thermae Romae Vol. 1 by Mari Yamazaki
2012: Verily, Verily by Jon Sweeney
2011: Closing down for end of year Festivus…
2010: Summary of Book Reviews from June-December 2009
2009: When the Heart Cries by Cindy Woodsmall