The key to understanding The Ghost Of The Mary Celeste is in remembering the most important word in its title is the second one and not the final two. Valerie Martin has centered her novel on one of the most famous—and mysterious—missing persons cases in history, but she’s not terribly interested in providing a fictional solution to the question of where all the people on board the Mary Celeste went before the vessel was found drifting in the Atlantic. Instead, she focuses on those left behind, those haunted by the ghosts of all who slipped beneath the waves, never to be seen again.
Thus, the Mary Celeste seems only of glancing importance for roughly half the book. The novel switches its point-of-view character throughout, even shifting between first- and third-person in individual sections; though all of these characters are touched by the abandoned ship in one way or another, some have closer connections to it than others. For instance, much of the book is spent following Arthur Conan Doyle around (he wrote an early-career short story about the “true” fate of those onboard the ship), and while it’s fun to notice the observational skills of his most famous fictional creation creep into his life the more he becomes associated with the great detective, Doyle feels largely incidental to much of the novel’s narrative until near its very end. He’s simply someone who went to sea as a young man and had his imagination set alight one night when he thought he glimpsed the ghost of the ship upon the waves—nothing more, nothing less.
Though Martin’s fragmented narrative can be frustrating in places and seems to lack a through-line, it grows more assured once she weaves the alternating narratives into place—one thread following Doyle, one telling of the harsh conditions on the sea in the 19th century, and the last examining the fad for spiritualism and communication with the dead in that century. These three major narratives intersect over and over again—Doyle ends up involved in all three of them at one time or another—but all keep warily circling that idea of a loss that can’t be explained or even understood, a grief that swallows the self as surely as the sea swallows whole ships.
This is particularly well handled in an early section written as the journal of a young woman named Sallie and in frequent check-ins on the life of a famed medium named Violet Petra. Violet’s gifts appear to be genuine and beyond reproach, but that turns her into something of a pet for rich men, who keep her secreted away to communicate with those they have lost. Yet she, too, is increasingly marked by those lost at sea, voices that call out to her from beyond watery graves.
The Ghost Of The Mary Celeste isn’t a mystery with a hard and fast solution. Martin, as always, is more interested in people (often women) on the margins of more famous stories, of the captain’s wife and daughter who disappeared from the ship or a female journalist drawn into Violet’s unusual circles. It’s telling that the famous Doyle is only a character here because his involvement in the mystery of the Mary Celeste is so tangential as to make him but an extra in its story. What answers Martin provides to him and the other characters in the end are elliptical, often found by reading between lines (and knowing the most prominent theory of what happened to the passengers of the Mary Celeste, a theory Martin seems to subscribe to). It’s a book for readers who are comfortable without the safety net of knowing more when finished than they knew going in, and it’s often starkly beautiful in its writing, particularly when Martin sends her characters out to sea.
And always, there’s the ghost of the Mary Celeste, not the ship itself, teasing and haunting and inspiring, but it mostly stays just off-page, a suggestion of other worlds and terrible fates unknown. The characters touched by the disappearance—no matter how slightly—are all marked by a certain knowledge of life’s impermanence, of what it is to know that even in life, we are in death. Perhaps that’s not the most predictable place to take a novel about a famous historical mystery, but the journey ends up being emotionally rewarding.