Although I’m not sure I fully grasped the point of this novel about ghosts and shipwrecks and Victorian sensibilities, Martin so cleverly blends the mystery of the fate of the Mary Celeste to an embattled maritime family and to the ruminations of famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that the ideas behind spiritualism take on a life of their own. Here a vulnerable young clairvoyant becomes a wisp of a soul living in a shabby Philadelphia hotel one chilly afternoon in November 1894.
With the dark, deep ocean and not much else around her, a bleak future lies ahead for unfortunate Maria Briggs, who is well aware of her salt-of-the-earth lineage. Maria has come to believe she's unlike anyone else. We first meet her on the deck of the brig Early Dawn as she embarks on a life of adventure in 1859 as the wife of Captain Joseph Briggs. Maria is convinced that all of them are in God’s hand as a wet. white mist engulfs them. Amid the slate blue peaks, the sky and sea become “like a wall of lead” as Maria breathes in the chilly salt air. She feels a constant tremor of anxiety, as though “she’s suspended in an soundless void.”
Maria’s cousins, Hannah and Sallie Cobb, regularly visit the Briggs’ home at Rose Cottage, yet the bucolic surroundings are unable to prevent Hannah’s wondering dreams and visions. While both families accept that seafaring deaths are part of life, the fairy-like Hannah (“with her dark hair and light eyes, her slender limbs... [and] capricious temperament“) waits for her missing cousin to return. Hannah in her grief is obsessed with how Maria was swallowed by the sea, her soul still adrift.
“This loss of our dear cousin” only strengthens young Hannah’s conviction. She reasons that her cousin is alive, and therefore she will return. When Sallie is given an invitation from Captain Benjamin Briggs to go the sea and become his wife, the fate of the Mary Celeste is finally sealed. Sallie aches for adventure and to be evermore “Mrs. Sarah Cobb Briggs.” At first enchanted by starlight on board the Mary Celeste and at Hannah’s tears and joy at her happiness, the notion of traveling with her beloved Ben adds to Sallie’s sense of eternal homelessness and “glittering fixity.”
Martin convincingly portrays the conflicts and confusions of young Sallie through the use of first-person narration. An ethereal quality to her vibrant prose fluctuates between the earthly worlds of each of her characters. Despite the mystical elements, the author presents the angst and the realities of hard Victorian circumstances while gravitating toward Arthur Conan Doyle, who is sailing to the beaches, rivers and tropical jungles of Africa on an adventure of a different order. As Arthur’s thoughts stray at long last to the truth about the infamous ghost ship Mary Celeste, “the crew of which had suffered a fate more diabolical than anyone could have guessed,” Martin introduces Philadelphia journalist Phoebe Grant, on assignment to publicly expose famous Violet Petra, a clairvoyant of supposedly extraordinary powers.
Although some believe that Violet is the “genuine article,” Phoebe’s investigation reveals that Violet is somehow connected to the Biggs and Cobb families. Phoebe believes there is more to her than meets the eye. Convinced that the frail young girl is a charlatan and a fraud, Phoebe follows Violet to the spiritualist retreat of Lake Pleasant to finally expose her and her complacent devotees. All are fixated on the absurd “conviction that death was not momentous, that life, as they put it, was continuous...ghosts stripped of their otherness.”
Pain and death are everywhere in this novel. While it may sound as though this book is too sad to bear, at the same time, the narrative is often too beautiful for words. From Conan Doyle’s role as psychic investigator to the terror of the sea to the tragedies that will come to haunt the Briggs family, the oceanic whisper mysteriously calls from the convoluted depths. Martin astounds us with her gorgeous, flesh-and-blood images: a ship’s sharp prow slicing through dark and enormous wind-filled sails that develop in our mind’s eye. The author makes us feel the chill and watery depths of the ocean while, like a soft September undertow, she presents her major theme: what draws the bereaved to seek the departed still considered to be in this world?
The author’s capacity for empathy really gives The Ghost of the Mary Celeste its emotional heft and allows for the expansion of borders between the known and the unknown world. The novel possesses an oppressive atmosphere of sadness and malevolence, a sense of viewing the spirit world through fragments of shattered glass. Perhaps Violet is right, and everyone has a ghost story and there really are the ghosts of the dead yearning to openly offer themselves, only to be shunned by the skeptics among us and by those of us who dutifully inhabit this earthly world.