Martin (The Confessions of Edward Day, 2009, etc.) offers a complex, imaginative version of historical fiction, playing literary hide-and-seek with the unsolved mystery surrounding an American cargo vessel found abandoned in the Azores in 1872.
Martin follows a linear chronology. In 1860, Benjamin Briggs, who will become the Mary Celeste’s captain, courts his cousin Sallie Cobb, somewhat to the chagrin of her younger sister Hannah, a spiritual rebel who drifts into reveries during which she has visions. In 1872, the ship is found seaworthy but abandoned, with no sign of the crew, the captain, or his wife and infant daughter, who accompanied him on the voyage. In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle, a young doctor and aspiring author, writes a fictional (and racist) solution to the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste that is heavily colored by his own less than happy trip to Africa three years earlier. The story, which captures the public’s imagination and launches his career, is assumed factual by many but not by Philadelphia medium Violet Petra, who readers will immediately realize is Hannah Cobb, who long ago ran away from home and assumed a new identity. Violet is being dogged by reporter Phoebe Grant, who initially wants to expose Violet as a Spiritualist fraud but finds the young woman more victim than victimizer. On an American tour in 1894, the now famous Conan Doyle meets Petra, and she impresses him with a message from his long-dead father. He invites her to London. She disappears en route but not before giving Phoebe a document that only complicates the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste. And really, that mystery is the least compelling element of a novel that sheds unromantic but not unsympathetic light on 19th-century New-Age spirituality and feminism while beaming a less sympathetic focus on brilliant but highly unlikable Conan Doyle. It is Violet, the lost soul, whom readers will not be able to forget.
Martin has wound the disparate threads of her novel into a haunting personal drama.