Author(s): Valerie Martin
Published by Vintage on 01/28/2014
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
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In 1872 the American merchant vessel Mary Celeste was discovered adrift off the coast of Spain. Her cargo was intact and there was no sign of struggle, but the crew was gone. They were never found.
This maritime mystery lies at the center of an intricate narrative branching through the highest levels of late-nineteenth-century literary society. While on a voyage to Africa, a rather hard-up and unproven young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle hears of the Mary Celeste and decides to write an outlandish short story about what took place. This story causes quite a sensation back in the United States, particularly between sought-after Philadelphia spiritualist medium Violet Petra and a rational-minded journalist named Phoebe Grant, who is seeking to expose Petra as a fraud. Then there is the family of the Mary Celeste's captain, a family linked to the sea for generations and marked repeatedly by tragedy. Each member of this ensemble cast holds a critical piece to the puzzle of the Mary Celeste.
These three elements—a ship found sailing without a crew, a famous writer on the verge of enormous success, and the rise of an unorthodox and heretical religious fervor—converge in unexpected ways, in diaries, in letters, in safe harbors and rough seas. In a haunted, death-obsessed age, a ghost ship appearing in the mist is by turns a provocative mystery, an inspiration to creativity, and a tragic story of the disappearance of a family and of a bond between husband and wife that, for one moment, transcends the impenetrable barrier of death.
I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
A fictional take on a real mystery, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste takes a strange nautical event and turns it into a ghost story. I was really excited by the premise of this book as I love it when a writer plucks a real history out of history and turns it into an intriguing ghost story. That unfortunately is not what this book is.
One of the biggest problems with this book is the overall structure and how disjointed it feels. This book is really not a cohesive story but rather tales that are barely related to each other being mashed into a single story. While the delineation between stories is clear, so at least the reader isn’t confused, it makes it both hard to care about what is happening and keeps the book from feeling like a real take on the mystery. And if you make it through the entire book you are rewarded with an incredibly anti-climactic and disappointing ending. There is a somewhat interesting piece about the fate of the ship, and then the book suddenly ends. The reader really doesn’t get a payoff that makes the rest of the book worth it.
Other than the structure of the book the writing is decent. Martin did a good job with the dialogue and using period speech patterns and yet having everything still make sense to a modern reader, something many works set in the past do not pull off.
The characters themselves were not bad and it was interesting to see Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually wrote about the mystery of the Mary Celeste. However none of their stories really came off as satisfying since most of the stories ended to abruptly. Every time their tale would get interesting the narrative would switch off to another character.
The idea behind this book was great and the actual writing was solid but the decisions on the structure of the narrative sank it. It’s too bad, because this could have been a good book.
Review by Travis Starnes