Is Valerie Martin's genre-bending The Ghost of the Mary Celeste a ghost story? (There are lots of ghosts.) Is it an investigation of a real historical mystery? (What happened aboard the brigantine Mary Celeste in 1872, and why was it found floating derelict near Gibraltar, its crew and captain missing, but with no signs of a struggle and all the cargo intact?)
Further mixing fact with fiction, it's also the story of Arthur Conan Doyle's sensational account of the Mary Celeste, which he wrote anonymously for a British literary journal, and a straight historical novel about a female journalist who investigates the Spiritualist movement in upstate New York (hence the ghosts). And I'm omitting a few other threads that wind their way through this intricately plotted, beautifully written novel.
Sometimes books like this, which lack a defined main character, can be difficult to connect with, and a reader can find herself trying to pin that role on someone specific. John Vernon, writing about this book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, assigns that role to Phoebe Grant, the journalist, who he says is "at the novel's heart."
I disagree. Grant may be the intellectual center, but the woman at the heart of the book is Sarah Briggs, the wife of the Mary Celeste's captain, whose story opens and closes the book. She may get less ink than Phoebe Grant, but her bittersweet tale (and her links to many of the other characters) help bind everything together into a coherent whole. Sarah Briggs is the sister of the Spiritualist medium (Violet Petra) whom Phoebe Grant is investigating. Are the ghosts that Violet sees and talks with real? Phoebe thinks not. But maybe we disagree.
Confused yet? Don't be. Martin is in complete control of all this material. She never loses her forward momentum, and never derails us with too much emphasis on one thing or another. It's really brilliant, and we all know how geekishly enthusiastic I get over complicated books that don't disintegrate under their own weight.
I don't understand why Valerie Martin isn't more famous. Her book Property won the 2003 Orange Prize and her subsequent books have been positively reviewed, but I don't see her name come up in the discussions where I'd expect to see it. Perhaps it's because Martin never writes the same book twice -- maybe it's her versatility that makes her difficult to track.