Tossed by life’s waves
KATE Worsley comes with glowing credentials, having been mentored by Sarah Waters, so it’s no real surprise that She Rises is a very accomplished and in places quite intoxicating first novel. It is set in what may be politely described as one of the less exciting places in England, out on the flat and rather featureless east coast. But in Worsley’s hands, the seafaring town of Harwich positively hums with life, a vibrant and successful port with all the human aspiration and dross that centres of trade inevitably attract.
But, its latest recruitment is far from ready for the cut and thrust of the bustling streets of Harwich. Louise Fletcher is swept from a humdrum farm life where she is a dairy maid with few, if any, prospects. She is taken to Harwich by the rather dubious Captain Handley who wants a lady’s maid for his daughter Rebecca. This is a moment at which the plot creaks a little: why would a young and ignorant dairy maid with no sophistication or skills be the choice of a man who is nothing if not a man of the world.
“He told me he had great regard for me. Had heard sound report of my character,” says a breathless Louise to her turnip-pulling mother, but despite her mother’s reservations, Louise is clearly about to set sail, albeit metaphorically, into another life.
Setting sail in a more literal sense is the book’s other protagonist, Luke, introduced to us as Louise’s brother. Brutally press-ganged into a life at sea, he is knocked about the head, shackled and forced to take the money that will effectively enslave him. If he refuses to take it, he will be beaten; if he runs away, he will be caught and hanged. The King’s navy is not an appealing career path for a young man, and so it proves.
The stories of Luke and Louise run in tandem throughout the book until a final twist combines them more closely than initially appears possible. Perceptive readers may well see this denouement coming, but it still arrives with considerable impact even if not, perhaps, with the full shock effect that Worsley envisaged.
The main strength of She Rises, and what a pleasure it is to write these words, is the quality of the writing. Worsley has a gift for metaphor and an ability to bring scenes vividly to life. Nowhere is this truer than of her descriptions of Harwich, viewed by the country folk amongst whom she has hitherto lived as “a wicked place” peopled with sailors and their whores. Certainly, it opens Louise’s eyes. “Warehouses three or even four storeys high, towered over me. The houses were rackety as a row of sties, for all that some had squeezed out a many-paned bow window here or pinned on a pair of painted columns to frame a drunken doorway. And the smell of the place! Tar and fish and beer and far worse.” But Harwich is as exciting as it is daunting: “my heart quite frankly leapt even as my land bred spirit quailed.”
Also daunting and exciting in equal parts is Louise’s mistress – the beautiful, capricious and contradictory Rebecca Handley, a woman destined to marry above her but with none of the skills that might enable her to run a gentleman’s household.
Louise, of course, does not have them either so the first few weeks of their relationship is troubled. That, however, soon gives way to a growing mutual dependence and affection until the two are inseparable.
Running parallel to this is Luke’s experience on board ship and his relationship with his self-appointed mentor Nick. And just as Harwich is brought to life by Worsley’s powers of description and eye for detail, so is life aboard ship. The brutality of the ‘recruitment’ process is matched by the brutality of life aboard, where floggings are commonplace, limbs frequently broken and sickness rampant. But despite everything that is thrown at him, Luke survives, negotiating his way through the perils of the sea as well as the perils of the relationships that embroil him.
She Rises has many strengths and Kate Worlsey clearly has a bright writing future ahead of her. I enjoyed it but with one or two reservations. For all the brilliance of the description, there are moments when the language feels worked at. This is in some ways a stupid reservation on my part because all good writing requires working at – but somewhere between there and Keats’ dictum that the words “should come as naturally as the leaves to tree”, there is a balance that I do not feel is always preserved here.
Perhaps, it is one of the few signs that this is a first novel. And my other slight reservation concerns the credibility of some events and characters which it would be unfair to detail here. But I am being picky.
I would give my back teeth to have written a first novel half as accomplished as this. She Rises is clearly destined to ensure that Kate Worsley does just that.