Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: **** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Age rage recommendation: 15+ (some violence and language; unpleasant sexual situations)
She Rises was a strange combination of things I love and things I hate, and while I definitely thought it was an interesting and beautiful book there were some details which made me shudder on a non-literary level. Before I get my review underway I will mention that while I’m quite keen on seafaring violence, and am perfectly content to read about despicable characters, I had to skim over several instances of sexual depravity in order to keep reading. If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, and if you like nautical adventures and tragic (rather than sordid) love stories, She Rises might be the book you wish you’d read over the summer. I was happy I brought it with me on my weekend trip to the Maine coast, even though it takes place mostly in England or on British ships, because it was atmospheric, intense, and beautifully described. This novel is as much a story about the irresistible (and deadly) call of the sea as it is a tale of how unlikely relationships can form all-consuming bonds of devotion. Worsley writes about that intensely dramatic devotion in the close quarters of female society, on the one hand, and amongst conscripted men in the brutal 18th century Royal Navy, on the other.
The stories of Luke Fletcher and Louise Fletcher are told in alternating chapters, which I found distracting at first but which fell into a rhythm to match the tossing of the warship Essex on waves after about four or five chapters. Louise tells her story in the second person, recalling the events which took her from a life making butter in a dairy to that of a lady’s maid in Harwich. We read about the intimate memories which shaped her intense loyalty to and fascination with her charming but volatile mistress in an almost voyeuristic fashion; these words are spoken with love and trust, so their very presence upon the page made me feel like I was privy to a secret which I shouldn’t hear but which was too mesmerizing to ignore. Louise’s chapters were a little slow to capture my interest, but soon enough the touching, emotionally complex story drew me in with its layers of social intrigue and budding identity struggles. The almost painfully earnest levels of devotion had echoes of Jane Eyre or even Wuthering Heights, if the Bronte sisters had focused more on women’s personal relationships with each other; there’s plenty of brooding and temper tantrums but also admirable portrayals of friendship. I found Louise’s mistress hard to understand at certain points in the novel, but since we are getting Louise’s version of events it makes sense that her portrayal of Rebecca might suggest an inscrutable, almost idolized figure of personal power.
In contrast to Louise’s languorous early chapters, Luke’s first pages begin with his disoriented realization that he’s been press-ganged into the Royal Navy and is stuck upon the warship Essex with nowhere to run or hide. We’re dropped right in the middle of action, and I found myself instantly invested in poor Luke’s undesired adventures, despite the fact that his parts of the novel are told in an almost detached third person point of view. The difference in narrative voice is dramatic and easy to follow, and my only complaint about the structure was that I would find myself thoroughly engrossed in Luke’s difficulties amongst the sailors only to be snatched away from the scene and placed back in the stuffy Harwich house, and vice versa. Both story lines gripped my attention relentlessly. Luke’s situation appealed to me slightly more because I’m a huge fan of nautical adventures, but the fact that I was always disappointed to leave a character at each break says some good things about Worsley’s pacing abilities and careful planning. The seafaring chapters had all the historical detail and high-stakes adventure of Patrick O’Brien’s series, and the young sailor forced to learn the ropes while surrounded by chaos reminded me of the Jacky Faber books. However, Worsley never shies away from the harsh realities of 18th century life on land or on the oft-romanticized sea. Luke forges loyalties out of necessity and fear, he witnesses depravity; cowardice; and betrayal, and he must eventually choose between his own morals and his desperation for peace and safety. I tend to imagine that the life of a powder monkey or a bonnie sailor would totally have been the life for me in times past, but reading about the tribulations suffered for months or years away from land, and the extremely unpleasant circumstances of press-ganged men, reminded me that a life confined to soggy wood and endless crowds of men could get both stifling without privacy and endlessly lonely.
The sailor characters were colorful and vulgar; I can picture them even now as though I had sailed with them myself, though some events aboard the ship happened so abruptly that I had to pause and consider what might drive the rather underdeveloped officers to make such strange decisions. Luke’s scenes focused on the inward turmoil of a character without any privacy in much the same way that Louise’s chapters showed how two people can eschew all other company and still experience worlds of their own. The novel’s minor characters fell flat a few times, but this wasn’t so important since the important relationships were really forged between five or six individuals and their vivid surroundings. She Rises is both an introspective novel about human intimacy and a story about how heavily one’s surroundings can influence someone’s path. From the dairy farm, to ballrooms, to cramped hold of a ship, to the terrifying freedom of the rigging, and back to dry land, the Fletchers wander in and out of distinctive settings as well as in and out of peoples’ lives, changing drastically as they do.
I loved the descriptions of the sea’s power, not only aboard the ship but also in Louise’s seaport town where the rising tide can flow through the streets and the patterns of commerce and social interaction are dictated by the temperament of the sea. The Fletchers are cursed with an inability to ignore the call of salt water, and since I love the sea more than I love most people, this was the relationship which fascinated me most in She Rises. No character has complete control over their own destiny, nor do they even have true agency over their most private identities, and this tragic but beautiful inevitability is reflected through the ever-changing but also timeless landscape of water and horizon. The setting is written with such reverence that I’m sure Kate Worsley must feel that draw of the tide herself from time to time.
Despite this novel’s fixation on the sexual side of human interaction and the occasional disjointed leap from characters’ motivations to their actions, I found it thought provoking and evocative. The plot is handled cleverly – and well it had to be – since there are a few dramatic twists which would be spoiled had she been lazy with her structure, though I did guess one ahead of the reveal.
I would recommend She Rises to fans of tense seafaring adventures, readers who expect their romance to come with a large serving of tragedy and frustration, and anyone who is interested in how gender and identity play a part in our perception of our fates; our abilities; and our environments. Think Great Expectations meets Master and Commander meets Orlando. If you’re going to be near the coast at any point this year, bring this book so you can appreciate the eternal power of the sea while also appreciating the fact that it’s much more comfortable on dry land, in modern times, than it was in the salty life you’ve imagined for yourself when your day job gets unbearable. At least you haven’t fallen asleep a free individual and woken up as an unwilling member of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, where life is short and your story’s harrowing.