It’s hard to come to terms with death in the absence of a body. Valerie Martin’s “The Ghost of the Mary Celeste” is about loss and its afterlife, how grief becomes a tragedy of its own and how tragedy bestows treasure. Martin, who won the Orange Prize for “Property” in 2003, has written a different kind of ghost story, one in which the living haunt the dead and refuse to let them go.
“The Ghost of the Mary Celeste” revisits an event that has long confounded maritime historians: The Mary Celeste, a merchant ship that sailed from New York for Italy with a cargo of raw alcohol, was found abandoned between Portugal and the Azores Islands in December 1872. The ship and its cargo had survived intact, but the 10 people aboard had vanished, leaving their personal possessions behind. Writers immediately took hold of the story, not least among them the purveyors of yellow journalism, peddlers of fiction and pirates of entertainment for whom facts have no currency. In recent years, several journalists and historians have advanced plausible theories, but these are no match for the ghoulish tales that still surround the Mary Celeste.
Martin has taken an altogether different approach. Rather than try to solve the mystery of the ghost ship, she brings to life the people at the heart of the story and then examines how that tale is told, retold and mythologized. “The Ghost of the Mary Celeste,” her 10th novel, begins with an image so romantic it seems to have no place in maritime literature: “The captain and his wife were asleep in each other’s arms.” Martin imagines the women who went to sea in the company of their husbands, leaving behind young children or, sometimes, taking them along. Such was the case with the actual Benjamin and Sarah Briggs, the captain of the Mary Celeste and his wife. Cousins and childhood sweethearts from Marion, Mass., they had two children: Sophia, the toddler they took with them on their ill-fated journey, and Arthur, who was 7 when he was left behind with his grandparents.
Much of the book follows the story of Sarah’s sister Hannah. Martin depicts her as a girl obsessed with death. Given to trances and visions, Hannah is the embodiment of the otherworldly state that is grief and mourning. Her longing to join the beloved dead leads her into the arms of Spiritualism, a movement whose followers included many artists and intellectuals of the late 19th century, including Arthur Conan Doyle. Eventually, she takes on the role of a medium, feeding off the grief of others by communicating with the dead.
In Martin’s book — as in real life — the person to benefit most from the tragedy of the Mary Celeste is Conan Doyle. A fascinating chapter titled “An African Adventure” describes Conan Doyle as the doctor on board the Mayumba, sailing from Liverpool to the west coast of Africa in the early 1880s. During the voyage, he meets the noted African American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, on his way to Liberia to take up a post as U.S. consul. Martin imagines Conan Doyle’s uneasiness in the presence of an educated black man, and that anxiety, she suggests, eventually showed up in his fiction.
The legend of the Mary Celeste gave Conan Doyle his first success as a writer. In 1884, he published an unsigned story titled “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” in the Cornhill Magazine, an English literary journal. The villain of Conan Doyle’s story was a vengeful American mulatto who, along with his bloodthirsty African friends, slaughters the Mary Celeste’s captain, the captain’s family and the crew, leaving only the narrator alive. Conan Doyle’s tale — which featured a “swarm of gigantic negroes,” a “little darkie servant,” a “group of dusky warriors leaning on their spears” and a “powerful talisman which appeals to the whole dark race” — was believed by so many readers on both sides of the Atlantic that it merited official denials.
Passed from character to character, the thread of Martin’s story at times becomes so thin and frayed that it’s sometimes difficult to grasp. No doubt, this confusion is meant to be part of the voyage of the novel, but I must confess to getting a little seasick. By the time Martin returns to the original characters, the waters are once again deceptively calm. It is Nov. 25, 1872, the last date that appears in the recovered log of the Mary Celeste. Soon, all those on board will be swallowed by the sea and buried in lies. Others will lose themselves to grief and greed, disappearing in the flesh only to reappear as ghosts in someone else’s story.
Rawles is the author of “My Jim.”
THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE
By Valerie Martin
Doubleday. 306 pp. $25.95