It is 1740, on the Essex coast. A young dairymaid, Lou, is plucked from rural obscurity to serve as lady’s maid to the imperious Becca, beautiful daughter of a wealthy Harwich merchant.
Lou’s mother is desperate for her to seize this chance to uncover the fate of Luke, her brother, who, like all the men in the family, has been snatched away by the lure of life on the waves. Where will Lou’s new life lead her – and will she fulfil her promise to her mother?
It’s a promising start, even more so once you learn that Kate Worsley studied Creative Writing under the mentorship of Sarah Waters - and it shows.
She Rises is a briny, sea-shanty take on Tipping The Velvet, complete with twisting plot, characters who rise and fall in station with the turn of every page, an evocative period setting, and – oh yes – cross-dressing young women and lesbian love affairs. Yet Worsley lacks anything like the storytelling flair and panache of her mentor, and here, sadly, the similarities end.
Worsley is clearly immensely knowledgeable about her period and setting – this is a town and a time of press-ganged young sailors, hardened sea dogs and smugglers, where all lives are lived to the rhythm of the waves.
The plot – or rather, two intertwined plots – allow us to simultaneously follow Lou and Luke on their parallel journeys. We watch as Luke is pressed into the navy after a drunken night’s carousing, his tale interwoven with that of Lou and Becca’s back on the Essex shore.
While the girls’ story progresses – far too slowly, but progress at least it does – Luke’s leaves little to report until over half-way through the novel. Regardless, Worsley’s dual structure means that we must return, every other chapter, to Luke, for endless descriptions of life aboard ship.
These are presumably meant to deepen our knowledge of his character, but there are precious few moments of psychological insight. In fact, both he, Lou and every other character are so bland that it’s difficult to care whether they end up in the drink.
This is a book over-stuffed with description that all attempts at characterisation flounder hopelessly. The picaresque plot is so convoluted – so gleefully, Moll Flanders-y implausible – that it ought to be a gripping read, yet every scene is bogged down in depths of unnecessarily purple prose.
this is a book over-stuffed with description that all attempts at characterisation flounder hopelessly It is as if the author lacks the confidence to pick just a few telling details – the observance of which could tell a reader as much about the character noticing them as the scene itself – and instead feels compelling to include everything: the quality of every smell, light and sound is repeatedly noted until the experience becomes one of sensory overload, and the only solution is to glaze over.
The plot twist to which everything builds up is so obvious as to be visible from miles off, even through the wrong end of a telescope, all of which makes the endless trudging through the 400-plus pages even more tedious.
A judicious editor could have halved the length of She Rises (or perhaps extracted three separate books from this over-ambitious morass) and perhaps produced something that was less of a chore to read. As it is, for all its rollicking subject matter, gender-bending and fascinating historical setting, She Rises left me feeling sea-sick.
Recommended for: Fans of historical detail; those with infinite patience