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28 February 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:45am

Water spirits: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

A new novel based around the famous “ghost ship” is an exploration of mystery and the unknowable.

By Jane Shilling

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
Valerie Martin
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £18.99

On 4 December 1872, the American brig Mary Celeste was found adrift in the Atlantic near the Strait of Gibraltar. The ship was seaworthy and still under sail. A considerable supply of food and water was found on board, together with the ship’s cargo of alcohol and the crew’s personal possessions. The lifeboat was missing and there was no sign of the captain, Benjamin Briggs, his wife, Sarah, their two-year-old daughter, Sophia, or the seven-man crew.

The mystery of the Mary Celeste has never been explained, though many have hazarded theories, including Arthur Conan Doyle, whose short story, “J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”, was published anonymously in the Cornhill Magazine in 1884. For Valerie Martin, whose previous novels include the Orange Prize-winning Property (2003), the fascination of the Mary Celeste is not so much the mystery of what befell the ship but the way in which her fate exemplifies the 19th-century obsession with mortality and what – if anything – lies on the other side of the fragile membrane that separates life from death.

Martin’s novel begins with a spectacular double drowning. (She seems to specialise in them: her 2009 novel, The Confessions of Edward Day, turned on a vividly described experience of near-death by water.) This tragedy predates that of the Mary Celeste by 13 years and involves Captain Joseph Gibbs and his wife, Maria. In the few pages we spend in their company we grow fond of the couple and are sorry to lose sight of them when their brig, the Early Dawn, is run down and sunk by a steamer.

There are plenty more where they came from, though: Maria was born a Briggs, from the harbour town of Marion, Massachusetts, where her sickly infant son, Nate – left at home when she joined her husband’s ship – is cared for by her extended family of siblings and cousins. Maria’s brothers, Benjamin and Olie, are both successful sea captains. They have known their cousins, Sarah and Hannah Cobb, since they were children, and now that they are grown up, Benjamin’s fondness for Sarah takes an amorous turn. Both families are delighted by the match: the only melancholy note is Sarah’s anxiety about her younger sister, Hannah.

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Since the girls’ mother died when Sarah was 13 and Hannah seven, Hannah has displayed “morbid” tendencies. She believes that she receives communications from their dead mother; and after Maria’s drowning, Hannah suffers from visions in which she sees her cousin, dripping seawater and wailing, outside her bedroom window. Sarah is appalled to discover that her teenage sister is offering her services as a medium in the pages of a Boston journal, Spiritual Condolence, but Hannah is defiant, arguing that, “I have a gift. It’s like a gift for music or painting. I can’t make it go away because other people don’t like it.”

Leaving the story of Sarah and Benjamin Briggs suspended, their fate suggested by an ominous set of documents reporting the recovery of the derelict Mary Celeste, Martin takes up her narrative a decade later, turning her attention to a couple of sceptical writers: Arthur Conan Doyle, a former ship’s doctor turned novelist whose literary career was partly launched by the controversy surrounding his fictional account of the fate of the Mary Celeste; and Phoebe Grant, a brisk and fiercely rational American journalist.

Both Doyle and Grant are interested in Violet Petra, a charismatic medium with a haunting resemblance to Hannah Briggs, whom they each hope to unmask as a fraud. In either case the project of denunciation is derailed when the sceptics succumb to Violet’s erratic charm and apparently unaccountable spiritual gift. First Grant, then Doyle find themselves implicated in the twin mysteries of Violet’s clairvoyance and the fate of the Mary Celeste.

The design of Martin’s novel – the semi-opaque jacket dimly revealing a ghostly image of the lost ship – and the title’s emphasis not on the vessel itself, but on its spectral narrative afterlife, are carefully calibrated. This is a fiction permeated by absence. Gradually we come to understand that it is not just the events aboard the Mary Celeste that are unknowable: that mystery is merely a spectacular version of the enigmas that haunt all human transactions.

The amused clarity of Martin’s prose lends itself well to anatomising the ineffable. She delineates with luminous precision the reluctant affection that Phoebe Grant develops for Violet Petra, with her showy gowns and her un-ethereal appetite for doughnuts and wine. And her description of the wedding night of Sarah Briggs, who is entirely unacquainted with the facts of life, is a small masterpiece of delighted discovery.

Along with the precision of style that allows her to animate what might in other hands be a bewildering plethora of narrative voices, Martin is entirely at ease with ambiguity. Her theme, in the words of Conan Doyle that supply her epigraph, is that “the unknown and the marvellous press upon us from all sides … warning us of the limitations of what we call matter”.

She offers no explanation of the eerie phenomena that inspire her fiction; indeed, she teasingly includes a list of the novelists and poets – Scott, Dickens, Hawthorne, Poe, Tennyson and Christina Rossetti – who are believed by Hannah’s father, a minister who asserts that the best stories are to be found in the Bible, to have encouraged his daughter’s unwholesome imaginative fancies. The only true reality, the message seem to be, resides in the stories that we choose to tell ourselves.