Published: 2013 by Bloomsbury
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “When you stopped and pointed to where the estuary meets the sea, showed me how, when the tide is on the turn, the movement of the water stills. Watch, you said, for once they’re equal, the salt water and the sweet, but they’re still fighting, they’re all in confusion. It’s not going to last. It seems to go on and on but it never, ever lasts. You took my hand then. Magical, isn’t it? you said.”
Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and of course it’s sound advice, although you could be forgiven for being drawn in by the image on the sleeve of this historical novel: it is, quite simply, exquisite. But it wasn’t just the beautiful cover that attracted me to this début work from Kate Worsley; it was also the accompanying praise and recommendation from one of my favourite writers of historical fiction, Worsley’s mentor, Sarah Waters. Perhaps inevitably, given this connection, I approached this book with some relish, anticipating a dark, sexy page-turner. My high expectations were not disappointed but – although some elements here certainly recall Sarah Waters’ themes and preoccupations – She Rises was not quite the book I expected it to be. Dark and sexual, yes, but less of a page turner. It is her rattling, suspense-laden plots that make Waters’ books so gripping (especially Fingersmith and Affinity) but Worsley’s novel is much more of a slow burner. The early chapters meander. I loved the setting and the language (both memorably salty) but found myself increasingly wondering where the plot was leading. Yet by the time the pace quickened (and quicken it does) I found I was so invested in Worsley’s central characters, Louise and Luke Fletcher, that I was prepared to accept – more than this, to delight in – a plot development that required considerable suspension of disbelief.
Set in the 1740s, the novel centres on the Essex port of Harwich, a stinking, salt-encrusted town of sailors, whores, merchants and precarious gentry, where the ever-present sea is the source of both bounty and hardship, and where women resent the waves that have stolen away husbands and sons. This is a theme that has been explored in many other works – Carsten Jensen’s superb We, The Drowned springs most obviously to mind – but Worsley makes it feel it fresh through the unusual tone of her dual narrative. It is to Harwich that Louise Fletcher comes, originally a dairy maid she has secured a new position as a ladies maid to a captain’s daughter. Initially repulsed, both by the sights and smells of her new home, and by her mistress’ capricious behaviour, Louise soon finds herself fascinated by both. For Louise, old family ties and the promise she made to try to trace her brother, who is believed to have run away to sea, become a source of conflict as she is drawn with increasing intensity into the world of her new mistress. By contrast, Harwich is Luke’s point of departure, press-ganged into the royal navy, he struggles with both the physical brutality of life on the waves (and Worsley does not shy away from coarseness and violence either in dialogue or action) and with the emotional torment of having left loved ones far behind without even a word of explanation. Told in alternate chapters, the two stories gradually converge in a way that is surprising, and – I found – hugely satisfying if not always quite credible.
Worsley walks a challenging path in weaving such a slowly developing plot threaded with tantalising hints, but without giving away too much too soon. While this sets up an engaging denouement, it does create some confusion and at times I felt a little too much was skimmed over or left unexplained, leading to a few confusing scenes that had to be reread several times for clarity. Overall, though, this is an impressive début: a briny adventure tale that is memorable for both its brutality and sensuality, and which develops the fascinating tension between land and sea beyond the most obvious stereotypes of gender.