The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel fusing the Mary Celeste legend and her historic captain's family with the equally historic Arthur Conan Doyle while adding an investigative journalist and insight into the world of spiritual mediums at the turn of 19th/20th centuries. Sounds a hotchpotch but the result is captivating.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2014
Publisher: W&N
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0297870326

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On 5th December 1872 the merchant brig Mary Celeste was found devoid of human life (or death), floating aimlessly in the Atlantic. Many, including Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are intrigued by the mysterious absence of all crew and Captain Benjamin Briggs' family (keeping the Captain company for the trip). Meanwhile investigative journalist Phoebe Grant wants to reveal the charlatans behind the popularity of spiritualist mediums and chooses Violet Petra as her study sample. Does Violet have the powers she claims and why is she getting so upset about Conan Doyle's Mary Celeste story? Phoebe is determined to find out and, in doing so, will be pulled into a maritime conundrum that may never be completely solved.

American author Valerie Martin will be remembered by me for two things. Firstly for winning the 2003 Orange Prize for Property (a novel about slavery) and secondly, for being the reason behind the most difficult review synopsis I've ever written. My problem is also my joy though – the difficulty is caused by The Ghost of the Mary Celeste containing so much wonderful stuff I didn't know where to start. Perhaps, to quote Oscar Hammerstein, we should start at the very beginning?

The very beginning is the fictional diary of the Sarah (or Sallie as her family call her), the future wife of Captain Briggs when he's a mere hope in her heart. This look into the lives of sea-faring families is fascinating as Valerie grabs our emotions in from the offset. It's a bit muddling as to the relationships in Sallie's and Benjamin's families to begin with but if we relax and enjoy the tale, all becomes clear and we remember those we're meant to. (It didn't encroach on my enjoyment but others have voiced differing opinions.)

If I'm going to be picky, once married, Sallie's diary does have a saucy entry that seems a tad non-Victorian-lady. However, again it didn't stop my total emersion in the tale and perhaps that's how Victorian ladies wrote in diaries for personal consumption only?

Once we've met Sallie and her family, the chapter interweaving begins, moving us forward to 1881 and Sir Arthur. Having finished writing about Holmes for a little while, he seeks personal adventure for further inspiration and signs as a ship's doctor on the SS Mayumbo travelling to and around Africa. (Medicine being his day job.)

This gives us the opportunity to learn some wonderful factoids about the Victorian writer (e.g. use of 'Marie Celeste' rather than Mary Celeste is his fault). Also as we learn we wince at the lot of the Victorian traveller, beset by illness and parasites.

It's also interesting to wince at Victorian attitudes to the first nation Africans, assumed to be a totally different species more akin to 'mere' animals. Ok, we may all know the idea was prevalent but Valerie's potent prose and clever juxtapositions demonstrate to whom the word 'uncivilised' could truly be ascribed.

The third thread that will eventually deftly osmose with Sir Arthur (and eventually the ship) is that of Phoebe the journalist and her relationship with the upper classes' 'pet' medium Violet. Whether we agree with/believe in clairvoyance or not is irrelevant. The novel looks more at the treatment and lifestyle of the practitioners than the theology. Therefore we soon realise that Phoebe's research is drawing us into a world a million miles away from those of Derek Acorah and Doris Stokes.

This is definitely an unputdownable novel that doesn't offer any answers as to the causes of the ship's abandonment which adds to the authentic air. In truth we can probably rule out reasons like 'monsters' and the supernatural but in truth we can only opine and guess. However that's a good thing as, perhaps, that's what keeps drawing us back.

A big thank you to W&N for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you'd like another viewpoint on the Mary Celeste, we recommend its chapter in Read On - Unsolved Mysteries by Keith West. If on the other hand the many facets of Conan Doyle are beginning to fascinate, try The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller or one of his lesser known characters Brigadier Gerard.

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Buy The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin at

Booklists.jpg The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books 2014.


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