She Rises begins in 1740 when Louise Fletcher, a young dairymaid from Essex, is offered a position as lady’s maid in a sea captain’s house in Harwich. Louise has never been more than a few miles away from home, so arriving at the Handleys’ prosperous household in the busy port town is like entering a different world. As Louise settles into her new job and gets to know her selfish, spoiled young mistress Rebecca Handley, she also decides to see if she can find out what happened to her brother, Luke, who went away to sea and has never been seen or heard from again.
In the other main thread of the story we learn how Luke was pressed into the Royal Navy from a tavern in Harwich and found himself taken aboard the warship, the Essex. Luke has never been on a ship this size before and soon discovers that life at sea is harsh and dangerous. Things improve when he is befriended by an older, more experienced seaman, Nick Stavenger, but still Luke wants nothing more than to escape and get back home to the girl he loves.
Louise’s story and Luke’s are told in alternating chapters and both narratives have a distinctive voice and style of their own. Luke’s is in the present tense and is filled with nautical terminology and slang; Louise’s is addressed to a mysterious ‘you’ – though we don’t have to wait long before we learn who ‘you’ is. Having finished the book, I think I can see why Kate Worsley chose to write the story in this way, but I’m not a fan of unusual or experimental writing styles in general and couldn’t help thinking that it made the book harder to read than it really needed to be!
The book was so atmospheric, though! The chapters set at sea felt realistic and gave me a good idea of how hard life could be for a pressed man in the navy, though as usual I struggled with all the references to mizen yards, main-topsails and other seafaring terms. But the descriptions of eighteenth century Harwich were particularly vivid: the labyrinths of dark alleys and smugglers’ tunnels, the smell of fish, the sailors standing in tavern doorways, the way the streets become flooded with sea water when the tide rises.
So, there were some aspects of this book that I loved and others that I didn’t like very much. I found it too slow at the beginning, but when Louise’s and Luke’s stories finally come together, the effect is amazing. I had been starting to get impatient, wondering how the two of them would be linked, but when it happened it was definitely worth waiting for! Things that had confused me earlier suddenly made perfect sense and some of the revelations in the final section of the book made me want to go back and read earlier chapters again.
She Rises reminded me of Sarah Waters, particularly Tipping the Velvet, due to the way both authors deal with themes such as gender and identity within a historical setting – so I wasn’t surprised to read that Sarah Waters was Kate Worsley’s mentor. As a first novel this was a very clever and ambitious book and although I had too many problems with it to be able to say that I loved it, I will be hoping for more books from Kate Worsley in the future.