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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

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An unsolved mystery, ghosts, Victorian melodrama, the collection of numerous source documents and narrative strands. It sounds like something Sarah Waters might have written. What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, actually.

Some of the story lines are well written. The opening scenes, the tragic story of the Early Dawn in 1859, are told with a compelling urgency. The storm is real, the sea spray fills our nostrils. And then bump – we’re back on dry land following the story of the Briggs family who lost their loved ones from the Early Dawn. From this moment on, it is like wading through treacle. The language is deliberately impenetrable; any reference points are swathed in extraneous verbiage just to make them harder to grasp; the pace becomes glacial. Worst of all, it is boring.

Then, after a brief and tantalising reference to the Mary Celeste, we find ourselves following a young Arthur Conan-Doyle on a ship bound for Africa. This ensures that any momentum that might have built in the Briggs section (if only…) is lost. The African section flits backwards and forwards, drifts from reality to dreams and back again. And it seems irrelevant, creating a distance between the text and the reader.

So it carries on, section after interminable section. Some are more readable than others and, for a brief moment in the middle of the book, the reader feels that it might al be starting to make sense. But then we drift off into more blind alleys, following Arthur Conan-Doyle on a tour of the US and his encounter with a medium. It all unravels again. Names and pseudonyms change on a whim and relationships seem to be left deliberately obscure. There’s something about a book, but by this point I had given up trying to make sense of it all.

The end, when it eventually comes, is a mercy. However, it does little to resolve anything. Like the Mary Celeste herself, the narrative just drifts. At the end, it is difficult to describe just what Valerie Martin might have been trying to write. It looks like something that presses all the buttons to win awards, but the incoherence suggests that Martin was not in proper control of her material. The lack of engagement with the reader made it an ordeal to complete – and it was too easy to put down in favour of alternative diversion. One can forgive bold ambition that doesn’t quite come off, but boring the reader is unforgivable.

The Mary Celeste mystery is enigmatic enough to have deserved something better than this.

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What a shame. I read Valerie Martin's Property, and that was an excellent book, and very simple in its execution. I will avoid this one thanks to your review, Mr HG: it sounds like exactly the sort of book that would really annoy me, even if it had worked.

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