Valerie Martin's newest novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, is a gorgeous page-turner set in the Victorian era of sea travel and séances. At its heart is a true story: In 1872, the brigantine Mary Celeste was found sailing on its own in the Atlantic, empty of people but still filled with their belongings and cargo—a ghost ship. The fate of its passengers, particularly Captain Briggs, his wife, and their toddler daughter, remains a mystery.
The ship's discovery seared the Victorian imagination, and many explanations were put forth, including a damaging, and false, first-person account by a young, ambitious, unscrupulous Arthur Conan Doyle. Published anonymously, it straddled the line between fact and fiction: many believed it to be true. Martin imagines the impact such duplicity had on those affected by the tragedy: They would be doubly haunted, first by their loved ones, and then by the lies in Doyle's account. In her novel, her characters' search for solace and closure works like an undertow, pulling them forward and into one another's lives.
There are ghosts in this book, to be sure, but it's not a ghost story—it's a story of living, breathing people trying to explain what they can't. It focuses on the gray area between fact and fiction, and the way it works on our hearts. Martin resurrects marvelous flotsam and jetsam from the time, in small details (a hotel serves everything either boiled or roasted) and larger concerns: The vogue for communing with the spirits is an ether-coated cottage industry, replete with shams and stars. Her two main characters appear as opposing forces: one rationalist, one spiritualist, and then, gradually, the lines begin to blur. Phoebe Grant, an independent, quick-witted journalist, is investigating spiritualism for the Philadelphia Sun; Violet Petra is a self-titled, self-named "charismatic speaker and clairvoyant medium" enjoying (and suffering) a mixed bag of society patrons. Though journalist initially intends to expose clairvoyant as a fraud, what happens between them is far deeper.
The other central character in the book is the sea. Millbrook resident Martin is a sea captain's daughter and steers a sure course. Her sea is endowed with a full spectrum of moods and powers: coy, indifferent, malicious, an infinite graveyard. Fog is its emissary, a palpable entity that rolls into cities unannounced, reminding people that despite their busy lives, their newspapers and hansom cabs, the vast sea and its ghosts are ever near. Ships are animated, shuddering, valiant, struggling. The very nature of sailing, which must have felt like a terrible hubris at the worst of times, is beautifully captured, here by the sea captain's wife, writing in her log: "What madness. What vanity of men, to sail about in fragile wooden boats tricked out with sails, putting their lives, their fortunes, their families at the mercy of this ravenous, murderous, heartless beast of a sea."
Martin's prose is a joy. Her efficient structure takes great leaps through time that feel entirely organic, in part because the present of the story is always grounded and layered with secondary materials—journals, letters, logs—that seem quite authentic, though we're not always sure. The effect on the reader seems entirely intentional. The takeaway, aside from having come to love a whole new series of characters, is that we are always, really, at sea, and it is part of human nature to try to anchor ourselves.
Appearing with Gail Godwin and Koren Zailckas 4/12 at 12:30pm, Elmendorph Inn, Red Hook Literary Festival.