Louise is a young milkmaid, learning the tricks of the trade under the careful tutelage of Mary. She’s from a poor family – her brother and father have been lost at sea and her mother works in the fields, doing a man’s work. She has a sister as well and it’s believed that Susie might make a lady’s maid. However when the Captain comes, it’s Louise he wants. He takes Louise to be a maid to his youngest daughter Rebecca. When Rebecca weds a seaman, she will need someone with her to take into her new household and it is planned for that someone to be Louise.
Louise didn’t know what to expect when she met her new mistress but Rebecca was hardly what you’d think of as a genteel young woman. She is spoiled, overindulged, cossetted and has clearly never lifted a finger in her life. But it doesn’t take long before Louise is hopelessly devoted to her mistress, forsaking even visiting her gravely ill mother to remain by Rebecca’s side. And when Rebecca becomes gravely ill herself, it is Louise who sacrifices everything so that she might save her. It’s a big risk but it is one that Louise is willing to make and it only strengthens the already unique bond between them.
Luke Fletcher is a young lad who was drinking in a tavern when he was swept up into His Majesty’s Navy in a raid of compulsary conscription. He’s never been on a ship before and he’s utterly desperate to abandon this nightmare and get back to the woman he loves so dearly but that isn’t an option. There are wars on and manpower is needed. Luke is beaten, starved, tormented and worst of all, held prisoner on the warship Essex. He becomes the favourite of a big sailor named Nick who mans the large billowing sails. It’s a trecherous job, requiring skill and the absolute ability to back yourself on the ropes high up in the air. To stumble is disaster and Luke battles his own fear when it becomes clear that Nick wants to train him up to do the sails. This could be a chance for him to rise above the taunts and the harsh treatment by the other seamen, if only he can gather the nerve.
Lou and Luke inhabit entirely different worlds and at first glance they could not be more different. Lou is learning how to be a maid but mostly she spends her days getting to know Rebecca and taking care of her in any way that Rebecca desires. Luke is desperate to escape his situation and get away from the hellhole that is the Essex. But in order to do that he will have to reveal the secret he has kept so closely guarded. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
She Rises begins in 1740 and introduces us to Lou, a rather quiet dairymaid on a farm and Luke, a teenager swept up into service into the Navy. The narrative alternates between the two with a first person perspective for Lou but third person for Luke. When Lou gets the opportunity to go and work for the Captain as a maid to his youngest daughter, she also vows to find out what happened to her brother, who went away to sea when Lou was rather young and was never seen nor heard from again. She’s never forgotten him and a desire to find him, or at least find out what happened to him, has been strong within her and even after people try and dissuade her, she still persists in trying to find out what she wants to know.
Worsley writes in a lovely, descriptive fashion and takes time to introduce her characters and build their relationships. If there’s any criticism for this book it’s that she perhaps takes a little too much time in the first half of the book. As the two narratives move forward towards a certain point, that point for me is where this book went from simply being a pleasant read to being a whoa! type of read. It was extremely clever and thought out the way in which the author constructed the story so that the reader was drawn to one conclusion and then neatly swung that around to reveal another. The latter part of the book is very good and was completely unexpected. However the first part could do with some tightening – there’s a lot of chapters devoted to Louise running around after Rebecca and worshiping her (and this is very important for their relationship but perhaps there didn’t need to be so much of it) and Luke’s misery on the ship and the games and politics between the other sailors, most of which he happens to loathe. I found it very easy to sympathise with Luke, even from the very beginning. Press-ganged into His Majesty’s Service with no desire or skill to do the job, consigned to a life at sea which he may not survive, surrounded by drunks, bullies, rapists and pedophiles. The life of a 1700’s sailor is a bawdy one and consent doesn’t seem to factor into many things and everyone is riddled with all types of the pox. It’s a bleak and miserable life, one which will require serious effort to escape. The punishment for desertion is death and sometimes you can see why some take that risk.
She Rises is a very promising debut that weaves a delicate and fascinating story that simply gets better the further you get into the book. I have to admit, I’m in two minds about the ending. I’m not sure if I liked it or not – I understand it and I think on one hand, it’s rather powerful and quite poignant. But on the other, as a reader, it could be a bit of a letdown.
Book #96 of 2013