I am fascinated by tales of the ocean, mysteries of the sea (I even have an interest in cryptozoology). The ocean is just so vast and for centuries uncharted. It was the greatest adventure anyone could embark upon. But even with maps and coordinates and best laid plans, ships disappear. What’s significant about the Mary Celeste is that she reappeared. She was found near the Azores completely abandoned and sailing under her own power. Her cargo was untouched, no damage was found and no one ever heard from anyone who was aboard ever again. All of this is true.
Martin has carefully constructed a novel around this strange occurrence. She has assembled three narratives. One focus is that of the Briggs, the family of the captain — and his wife and daughter — who were all lost at sea. The reader is given insight into the family’s inner workings and relationships before the captain takes this doomed commission.
The reader is also introduced to the greenhorn Dr. Doyle who is a ship’s surgeon on an African-bound vessel. He hears of the discovery of the Mary Celeste and decides to turn it into a short story. He publishes it anonymously, titled “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.” This gave it an air of formality and many took it to be a true account of the happenings aboard the ship.
Lastly, Martin weaves in a narrative of a spiritualist, Violet Petra, who claims to have knowledge from beyond about the last hours of the Mary Celeste. Of the three, this is the weakest in terms of character construction. It’s narrator, a spunky female journalist, gets lost in Petra’s drama. Too much of her narrative is about her love interests and less about the Mary Celeste or its people. Petra and Doyle do overlap in some scenes, which buoys them up a bit.
Still, the book is very strong and readable throughout. From Doyle’s account:
The doctor, aghast at what he saw through his porthole, made up his mind to go on deck. The ship lurched and trembled like a living thing and he held tightly to the handgrips as he came up. There he saw a sight that made him gasp for breath. In every direction great walls of black water, heavily veined with white, loomed to hight they blocked the sky. The ship, which had seemed large, was her revealed to be a child’s toy. There was a continual rush of phosphorescent sea across the decks, hi-deep liquid green flames, which cast upon the pale faces of the sailors manning the pumps an eerie, otherworldly pallor. Loc. 1119
This is from the journalist, Phoebe Grant:
When asked, most people will tell you they don’t believe in ghost. I know this, I’ve asked. I also know that with a little pressing it emerges that everyone has a ghost story. in an otherwise ordinary life of toil and struggle there intruded in this house, in that room, on that night, something extraordinary, inexplicable, something not of this world. One heard something: footsteps on a stair, a child crying, whispering voices in the hall; another saw something: a curtain rustling in a closed room, the impress of a head upon a pillow, a locked window standing open, a shadow stretching across a floor and up a wall. Loc. 1980
In all, this is a great read and sure to leave you with the sound of the howling sea in your ears… or is it a voice from beyond trying to tell you something? In the world of this novel, it could be either.
Read via NetGalley
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Nan A. Talese (January 28, 2014)