“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Monday, May 12, 2014
Review: THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE by Valerie Martin
Piracy? Mutiny? Did the crew and a well-respected captain – along with his wife and two-year-old daughter – abandon ship for a lifeboat and subsequently perish? Or were more sinister forces at play?
American author Valerie Martin opens her tenth novel in 1859, with an account of a shipwreck at sea. The lives lost that day resonate down through the generations, particularly through the Briggs family of Marion, Massachusetts, which has a noble tradition of seafaring. Sarah Cobb picks up the story, telling us, via her journal, about her fears for her younger sister Hannah, who appears to believe that she can channel the spirits of the dead. Sarah Cobb would in due course marry Benjamin Briggs, the captain who was at the helm of the Mary Celeste when it set sail from New York late in 1872.
Valerie Martin has in the past incorporated historical figures into her fiction, most notably in Mary Reilly (1990), a version of the Jekyll and Hyde story told from the perspective of Mary, a servant in Dr Jekyll’s house. Here she weaves a novel around the lives of the Briggs family, and also includes an investigation into the mystery of the Mary Celeste by Arthur Conan Doyle, who in 1884 published an anonymous account of the mystery titled ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’ (in which he called the ship ‘the Marie Celeste’), which purported to be a survivor’s testimony.
Meanwhile, a journalist called Phoebe Grant offers a memoir in which she recounts her meetings with Violet Petra, a young woman who is one of the leading lights of Spiritualism, a quasi-religion featuring mediums who can speak with and for the dead, a phenomenon that also fascinates Arthur Conan Doyle on his travels through the United States.
Even though there is little to suggest that the Mary Celeste fell victim to a supernatural agency, Valerie Martin nails her colours to the mast by including the word ‘ghost’ in her title. This is a novel about faith and doubt, which explores our willingness – with Doyle as a credulous believer, and Grant his sceptic counterpoint – to accept the possibility that there is a world beyond the one we can see, touch and hear. What makes the novel such an engrossing read is that the author is as persuasive when recording Violet Petra’s apparently miraculous powers of divination as she is at constructing a robust rebuttal of any possibility of human interaction with the spirits who reside, according to the Spiritualists, in ‘Summerland’.
It’s a beautifully written book. Martin has the eye of a poet, particularly when writing about the sea, and some of the stormier passages bring to mind Conrad at his most vivid. Valerie Martin is the daughter of a sea captain, her biography tells us, but she has never been to sea. Nevertheless, the novel is strewn with fabulously detailed images: “Gradually the wind abated, though the sea was still high, kneading the ship like bread dough between the waves.”
There is much to admire here, not least Martin’s confidence in creating convincing voices for her host of characters, be they historical figures or fictional creations. Moreover, it’s a deliciously readable novel of ideas that challenges readers to question what they truly believe when it comes to the greatest of all the metaphysical concepts, that of the possibility of life after death. ~ Declan Burke
THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE by Valerie Martin is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner.