She Rises by Kate Worsley

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She Rises by Kate Worsley

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A vividly imagined – but ultimately derivative – tale of adventure at sea and at home in 1740s Essex. Fans of Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters may enjoy Worsley's homoerotic take on historical fiction.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408835890

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Imagine, if you can, a lifelike eighteenth-century seafaring epic (something along the lines of Carsten Jensen's We, the Drowned or Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie) crossed with Sarah Waters's Fingersmith. If you then added in touches of Charles Dickens's Bleak House, plus shades of the rest of the homoerotic Waters oeuvre (especially Night Watch and Tipping the Velvet), you would just about have Kate Worsley's debut novel, She Rises, in a nutshell.

Fifteen-year-old Louise Fletcher is a dairymaid at a farm owned by the Handleys. Both Louise's father and her brother Luke are presumed lost at sea, but Louise's mother still holds out hope of having Luke returned to her. One day Louise is sent to Harwich to join the Handley household – rich through smuggling – as lady's maid to the beautiful youngest daughter, Rebecca. At her mother's behest, Louise dutifully trawls the seaside pubs, looking for any clue to her brother's whereabouts. Meanwhile she swiftly falls in love with her mistress, embarking on a secret affair that brings joy and trouble in turn.

One of the chief virtues of Worsley's novel is its intricate structure. Louise and Rebecca's relationship is narrated by Louise herself, in both first- and second-person sections. These provide a contrast to the alternating chapters, written in the present tense and from a third-person limited perspective, which recount Luke's adventures after he is press-ganged into naval service. Nearly two-thirds of the way through the novel an outrageous twist links Louise's and Luke's stories in an utterly unpredictable manner that seems to introduce an almost magical realist note to the narrative.

Both plotlines are faultlessly imagined and engagingly written. Louise does not, perhaps, make for the most compelling of narrators in her sections, but she is a keen observer of others' behaviour, and as a servant she has access to family secrets and can sneak about at will. In addition, Worsley's nautical material is particularly convincing, with maritime vocabulary and sailors' slang enlivening Luke's perilous journey to the Windward Islands.

If you hadn't already guessed from Waters's effusive praise on the book's cover ('Immensely enjoyable…full of energy, intelligence and delicious turns of phrase'), Worsley was Waters's student at City University London, and it shows. She's not just Waters's protégée, or an admirer paying homage, but something of a clone. Unfortunately, in Worsley's novel the pervasive sexual content seems purely gratuitous; it is not essential and of a piece with the entire narrative, as in Waters's novels. The realm of lesbian-tinged historical fiction must be rather small, such that one wonders if the world really needs another Waters read-alike.

She Rises is an odd creation, a sort of chimera, and not at all what I was expecting from the little I had read about it pre-publication. Perhaps it's best thought of as a strange, seductive flight of fancy, similar to Jeanette Winterson's The Passion. Worsley does not manage the homoerotic slant as well as Winterson or Waters, however, and might have been better suited sticking to a more conventional historical narrative for her first novel. The book's twist is well thought out, however, and certainly lifts what would have been a rather ordinary storyline into something more promising. And yet an abrupt and unclear ending left this reader feeling ever so slightly cheated. All the same, I will be intrigued to see what Worsley comes up with next.

For another historical tale of maritime adventure, try Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch.

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