It’s 1740 and a young dairy maid Louise Fletcher is offered work as a lady’s maid to Rebecca, the spoilt daughter of a sea captain, in the glamorous port of Harwich. The sea has played its part in her life already, luring both her father and brother away never to return: ‘the sea was where our troubles flowed from. Us Fletchers have too much salt in our blood’. Before Louise leaves the farm, her mother requests that she find out what has happened to her brother, Luke, thus giving the story its driving force. Louise finds life in Harwich both dangerous and exciting and is soon under the spell of her young mistress, but then smallpox strikes and Louise has to put her own life at risk to save Rebecca. In the second of the two narratives, fifteen year old Luke finds himself drinking in a Harwich local tavern at the wrong time. He is beaten and press ganged by His Majesty’s Navy into going to sea on the warship Essex. The world he enters is dangerous and Luke has to adapt quickly if he is to survive.
She Rises is the debut novel of Kate Worsley, a graduate of City University’s MA in Creative Writing (Novels). It’s a sensuous, lilting story of love and identity set against a world of sea faring tars and smugglers. Worsley’s skilful use of historical detail resurrects the eighteenth century with all its sights and smells and levels of societal and political intrigue. This is visceral and sensual writing: early on we see Louise as she makes butter, her hand caressing the cream until ‘the flakes [thicken] like a blizzard’. As Louise is new to Harwich and Luke a virgin seaman, the world they encounter feels fresh and alive as they experience it at the same time as us and Worsley is to be highly commended for the way she has handled the historical aspect of this story. The dual narrative structure works well with a good level of pacing between the two and when, as is inevitable, the two strands come together the results are exciting and unexpected.
Worsley’s prose is precise and enchanting. Descriptions such as: ‘I always knew the size of my hands, and my feet too. You’re more frog, than girl, my sister used to tease me,’ add to the rich texture of the writing and also steer the direction of the story. This is a writer in control of her craft, but the beginning of the book is too slow and the reader isn’t given enough to chew on. I particularly disliked the fact that the male narrator wasn’t identified immediately and was referred to simply as ‘the boy’. There is a reason for this, one of the themes of the book is identity, but I don’t think it would have made a great deal of difference to the reader to have him named straight away, we could guess who he was from the back cover. Instead of injecting the story with intrigue, the device just irritated as I wanted to get to grips with who each of the characters were and immerse myself in their stories. As the novel progresses, however, and particularly once the love story starts, you can feel Worsley’s own excitement in her story and the whole novel is lifted to another level. For this reader it felt as though the first half of the book settled the writer into her world and characters and once she was there and had started telling the story she wanted to tell, the second half of the novel came alive. The first two hundred pages, although rich with detail and colour (with fabulous descriptions such as: ‘The sea is a flashing tumbling silver platter, and cannot be looked at for long’), lacked any real emotional depth. On board the ship Luke is forced to climb the rigging, even though the thought of doing so scares him witless. The description in this scene is fabulous and we are there watching every detail, from the sights and smells around him to the feel of the rope on his hand, but this reader didn’t care if he made it or not, as the build up to Luke facing this particular fear just wasn’t there and the whole scene lacked the necessary passion.
The second half of the book though had it all: intrigue, suspense, colour and a gripping seductive love story that carries the reader from Essex to the West Indies. There are some fabulous descriptions of how it must have felt to be at sea on one of these warships; in particular I found the claustrophobia of Luke’s circumstances beautifully captured: ‘How he has craved even a minute’s privacy, the need for it claws at his heart.’ Worsley cleverly contrasts Louise and Luke’s circumstances; if one is in danger the other is experiencing a relative amount of calm and security and that gives the reader enough light and shade to carry them through the story, mirroring the rolling ebb and flow of the sea.
Any Cop?: Despite the slow start to this book, the second half is good, gripping stuff, a great adventure that carries the reader to a lost world and in the end it’s worth the effort it takes to get there. Comparisons will be made to Worsley’s mentor, Sarah Waters, but Worsley is a writer of great potential with a distinctive, fresh voice and one definitely worth looking out for in the future.