Review: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin

Programming note: Because of my commitment to depicting the way I really read, this review is less focused than I might prefer. Sometimes reading the end is like that — you go to read the end and find out that you haven’t read enough of the beginning for the ending to make sense.

The beginning: A husband and wife die at sea. Back at home in New England, their family grieves for them; amongst them is a woman called Sallie, who struggles to manage her spiritualism-obsessed sister Hannah, while also discovering her own love for her cousin Benjamin Briggs.

The end (spoilers in this section, so skip it if you don’t want to know): Aw, the end is sad. Sallie marries her true love Benjamin Briggs, but then he is swept overboard during a gale when she is out on her ship with him, and she is heartbroken. It also seems to validate spiritualism slightly. Wait, this is the Mary Celeste? I was totally thinking the book at the beginning was the Mary Celeste, and the whole rest of the book was meant to be the aftermath. I am the world’s most inattentive reader. Let me go back and try again.

A bit more of the beginning: Now we’re hanging out with Arthur Conan Doyle, and he’s hearing about the Mary Celeste and its mysterious vanishing. Aha, see, this is what I missed at first. It’s one of those books, not a puzzle book exactly but a book in which there are many pieces that have to get fitted together in your mind. We’re collecting information from different angles and different narrators, and by the end of the book we will feel satisfied. That makes much more sense.

The end again (no spoilers this time): Got it, got it, got it. I was misunderstanding what kind of book I had. Sometimes this can happen. I never said that reading the end was a perfect system. (NB: Your system of reading is not perfect either.)

The whole: I am perpetually missing Valerie Martin, somehow, as an author. Her books were always being removed from syllabi the semester I took the classes that used to assign her; and I foolishly picked up Property as a first try with her, even though I know perfectly well that my stomach is not steady enough for fiction about slavery. (I abandoned Property a quarter of the way through, which is why you have not seen a review of it in this space.)

In The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Martin probes from all angles at the idea of ghosts. Her characters are haunted by loss and by ideas of what loss means, perpetually struggling to put the mysteries of death into a context that makes sense. Just as the reader hopes to gain an understanding of what happened to the Mary Celeste — and by the way, resolving that mystery is not the point of this book — journalists and mediums and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hope to understand what happens after the end of life.

Contributing to the feeling of mystery that hangs over the book is Martin’s choice to frame the narrative as a variety of viewpoints: in addition to the traditional third-person narrations we receive from Violet Petra and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the book also presents us with Sallie Briggs (nee Cobb)’s diary from before her marriage; official documents pertaining to the loss of the Mary Celeste; excerpts from a memoir by journalist Phoebe Grant about her experiences with the famous medium Violet Petra; finally, the ship’s log from the Mary Celeste. This fragmentary style of storytelling, which skips about in space and time, adds to the book’s mood of gentle (but persistent) inquiry into the nature of death and what follows death.

Martin does not permit her readers to sit with the easy answers. The fate of the Mary Celeste is left uncertain at the end, although you may deduce what Martin is driving at if you’ve read the Wikipedia page and you know some of the theories about it. Similarly, Martin never provides any certainty about the truth or otherwise of Hannah/Violet Petra’s apparent ability to speak to the dead. What is certain is that Violet is as trapped by her talent (or her fraud) as she is supported by it: The only possible escape from her quest to understand death is by death itself.

“How long have you been living like this?”


She sent me that frank look of appeal I’d seen that first evening, when she bent over to pick up her napkin. “Ten long years,” she said.


“Good heavens.”


“I’m just a pet. I’m the in-house clairvoyant.” She chuckled sourly. “Sometimes I play the tyrant, just to keep from dying of boredom.”

See? Sad.

All that said, and with many props to Martin’s ideas and writing, I do truly prefer a faster-moving book. When I pick up another book by Martin, I’ll be hoping for a slightly higher plot-to-feelings ratio.

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

  • I still want to read this because I have really enjoyed some of her earlier novels, but by the time I read through your first spoiler warning, my eyes had already skipped ahead to “Awww….sad”. Noooooo. I need a bigger spoiler alert! My experience with her novels is that they are more about mood and feeling than plot, generally, but I’ve only read a handful. Hopefully you enjoy her next one more.

    • Gin Jenny

      It’s okay! It’s okay! It really wasn’t much of a spoiler — the book isn’t spoilable because you know from the start what happens to the Mary Celeste. It’s okay! But I will try to put more space between the spoiler warnings and the spoilers in future.

  • Is it weird that your initial confusion with the book makes it more appealing to me? I appreciate you staying true to your review system. It once again makes me want to read the end of a book first just to see what it’s like.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, I’m glad it didn’t make for too befuddling a post. :p

  • I still can’t imagine skipping to the end of books before reading the whole book… I know people do it, though!

    • Gin Jenny

      Ah, I love it. Makes my life happier.

  • I can’t quite decide if I like the sounds of this one or not. I kind of hate ambiguous books, except when I totally love them…

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahaha, same here. I think I tend to be in support of ambiguous endings, but ambiguous all the way through isn’t always a win for me.

  • I generally like things about ghosts, particularly when they have a little postmoderny feel too. Valerie Martin is an author I seem to keep missing, too, though only because I am always busy reading other things when her books come out. I would like to read her… I own one of hers about an actor (you are not the only inattentive reader – I know I read the blurb and can only recall that one word from it) and I will probably try her out on that. Your review was most entertaining, though.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh, The Confessions of Edward Day? I am aware of that book. Make sure to post about it when you read it — I’m curious what you will think of Valerie Martin. I had mixed feelings.