Tag Archives: Book reviews; guest blog;

She Rises by Kate Worsley

Review by Júlia Braga Neves

Kate Worsley’s She Rises takes the reader into an adventurous journey on and offshore, narrating the stories of Luke and Louise Fletcher who lead very distinct lives, him being a sailor in the British Navy and her being the servant of a wealthy smuggler’s daughter. Worsley’s first novel minutely depicts the daily routine of her two protagonists in order to emphasise the discrepancy between male and female gender roles in 18th Century Britain. While Luke’s days are marked by constant violence and struggles with other men aboard the ‘Essex’ and other vessels, Louise’s life is led by her domesticated and subservient behaviour towards her mistress, Rebecca Handley.

The story begins with Luke Fletcher violently being thrown aboard the Essex by other men in order to take up his job as a sailor. Louise Fletcher, his sister, begins her story by describing her leaving her job as a dairymaid to start work as Rebecca’s maid. Throughout most of the novel, Worsley intersperses one chapter for Luke and one for Louise; his chapters narrated by a heterodiegetic narrator and hers in an autodiegetic voice. These chapters overtly emphasise Luke’s and Louise’s roles as working class man and woman, as they exhaustively describe their activities as a sailor and as a lady’s maid, leading the reader to understand their gender roles as inflexible and impossible to transcend.

These strict gender roles are only disrupted when life on the coast and at sea are brought together in one voice that is able to articulate more flexibility in the embodiment of gender and to question social rules that determine one’s gendered position in society. In fact, Worsley invests in shifts in the narrator voice to remind us that history is also narrated according to gender position. In narrating Luke’s stories overseas, she mainly employs an omniscient narrator to indicate an authoritative voice that can speak for all; Louise’s life, on the other hand, is related in first person, in the form of a letter or a diary, reflecting upon the idea of personal archive and individual narrative as important sources of historiography.

The investment in narrator voices and in detailed descriptions of her protagonists’ social environments also raises important questions regarding the relation between gender and sexuality. Same-sex desire is constantly being depicted throughout the novel both in Luke’s and in Louise’s lives, but the distance the heterodiegetic narrator gives Luke’s story often veils homosexual relations among men with violent fights, alcohol abuse and sexual violence towards the women that board the vessel. Homosexual desire is thus better situated in Louise’s character and first person narration, as she directs her writings to Rebecca, devoting herself entirely to her lover’s well being and doing whatever it takes to be with her again. This devotion is sometimes, however, degrading, since it lowers the protagonist to a position of subservience and obedience, especially in terms of class relation: as a woman servant, she is doomed to remain oppressed and dominated by her mistress.

Louise’s agency is only attained at the turning point of the novel, which is marked by the encounter of Luke’s and his sister’s narratives. Because the narrative up to this point follows in slow pace, it becomes slightly confusing to grasp the very abrupt change in the narrative voice, and the reader might feel puzzled in understanding what is to come of the story. But it is at this turning point that Louise manages to assert her agency and act upon the struggles she encounters, altering all features that had hitherto formed her character. This sudden shift in the plot is a peculiar one, since it leads the story to an unimaginable direction, making the reader both curious and uneasy about the new ambience Worsley’s characters encounter.

Worsley raises many interesting questions regarding gender, sexuality and historiography in She Rises. As a first novel, the development of these topics seems to be the beginning of a promising literary project, which combines historical research, and reflections upon feminist and queer theories.

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Hinterland by Caroline Brothers

Review by Laura Helyer

‘In the hours that pass the dimensions of the world are reduced to the sound of the road: the stickiness of wheels on bitumen, the wind-rush of passing vehicles.’ (15)

Hinterland by Caroline Brothers is a poetic and moving first novel about the challenging, epic journey made by two young Afghan boys towards an idea of Europe, to England, where the recently orphaned brothers believe they will be able to obtain an education and asylum. Aryan, the elder brother must ensure the safety of his brother, Kabir. His account is textured by the troubling memories of the deaths of their parents and brother, as well as the obstacles they have suffered so far when the reader joins them already embarked on their odyssey as they try to get to Athens. These memories and traumas are vividly depicted through dream-like passages which disrupt the intense, present tense emergencies and onward narrative momentum of their plight. Indeed, it is Aryan’s overriding concern for his brother that inevitably sustains them both, illustrated through the mnemonic songline of cities he makes him repeat ‘KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon!’ (11) and the child-like challenge of who will get there first. It is the sincerity and persuasive depiction of this relationship between two vulnerable, lonely brothers who are forced to become adults too soon which is one of the real strengths of the novel.

Although the dialogue and exposition can feel strained in places and the characterisation is perhaps not as immersive as one might have hoped, Brothers possesses an original and striking style. There are a few moments when this can feel overwritten or jarring- as in ‘his face is a pale disk in the crepuscular light’, (6) – however, there are many occasions of luminous, almost filmic imagery, particularly with regard to making the reader really feel the hardships, boredom and fear of illegal travel and sleeping rough, through sensuous detail. For example:

The next road is less well made. There is a different rhythm under the tyres, a regular double bump as the wheels hit the joints in the surface. The change in tone wakes men who have learned to listen in their sleep; from the crinkle of their clothes and their silence Aryan can tell they are alert and straining for clues. (17)

Throughout, Brothers uses repetition as an effective narrative device as when, towards the end of the novel, Aryan, hidden in an ice truck, recounts and catalogues their journey as an inventory of images, painful memories and bad decisions. Her main innovation, I feel, is in the deft handling and transitions between past and present, in the way travel and movement can create a dream space and how she uses this to reveal a collage-like impression of the brothers’ predicament and how, though they seem at first very alone, are also understood to be bound up in a network of family, family friends, favours and obligations.

This is an ambitious and important novel, which makes a valid attempt to uncover a truth about the impact of conflict on displaced minors. It also engages with pertinent and difficult themes such as lost or confused identity and child abuse. Brothers clearly draws on her experience as a historian, journalist and work as a foreign correspondent to write a compelling, nuanced and informed portrayal. I will certainly be looking out for her next book.

The Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Review by Leanne Bibby

The wives of Henry VIII are persistently popular subjects of a certain category of historical novel authored primarily by women, recounting the personal stories of high-ranking women inhabiting dangerous royal courts. These six queens’ stories of ambition, sex, dangerous enemies and the threat of gruesome death are perennial, perhaps because tales of brave and tragic women resonate easily in our celebrity-obsessed culture. Henry’s last queen, Katherine Parr, is one of the least ‘novelised’ of the six. Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit reminds us why this is unfortunate: the book is a timely, absorbing addition to a now long-standing genre.

​Katherine is most often remembered as having outlived her own Bluebeard, rather than as the subject-made-queen who inhabited an even more dangerous court than her better-known, executed predecessor, Anne Boleyn. Fremantle recreates that court with disarming detail. Her writing’s immediacy and materiality – Katherine’s wedding headdress is ‘as heavy as a bag of potatoes’ (149) and we are told of ‘the rotten stink of the pig bucket’ in the privy kitchen (152) – contributes to a genuinely unfamiliar, gritty and grim historical world.

Fremantle’s Katherine is highly intelligent and resilient, but with little choice but to be manipulated by powerful men. Her plight evokes Diana Wallace’s analysis of Jean Plaidy’s female-authored, biographical historical fictions and their concern with ‘captive women’, in which ‘the shaping forces of history are reduced to interpersonal relations, particularly familial and sexual relations’ (Wallace 137). Katherine Parr is indeed physically captive, but her activities as one of the first women to publish her own books are well-drawn, here. Fremantle’s is a hauntingly subtle, episodic portrayal of Katherine herself as a stifled but significant historical force: she considers, doubts, fears, writes and publishes anyway, risking the fate of her contemporary Anne Askew, tortured and burned for heresy.

The novel’s major events are slow to gather pace, but interest is more than sustained until then by the device of three main, separate points of view: of Katherine, her maid Dorothy ‘Dot’ Fownten and her physician Robert Huicke. Dot’s scenes are particularly powerful, showing the Reformation-era court and surrounding city ‘in negative’ by way of the servant girl’s conversational and sensitive interior monologues. Especially poignant is a scene in which Dot, literate thanks to her mistress, reflects that ‘there is something grave and powerful about written words and being able to read them’ (204).

Certain aspects of Katherine’s journey feel rushed-through, especially in the novel’s eventful latter section. Fremantle’s style is at times so closely observant of her characters that major historical players, such as Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, seem drawn a little too lightly and plainly; occasionally we see too little of their impact on Katherine. On one hand we might be grateful for the narrative’s restraint compared to the bloody set-pieces of TV period dramas, but on the other, sometimes, as Dot observes, ‘It is as if everything happens somewhere else, and all they can do is sit in these chambers and wonder about it’ (284).

Fremantle’s novel demonstrates memorably what makes Katherine a compelling subject for fiction. As a figment of the imagined and re-imagined Tudor era, she not only was a captive woman – she still is one. Avid readers know well ‘what happened’ to Katherine Parr, and so Queen’s Gambit addresses our need to consider the details of her life again and again, looking more closely each time, hopeful of seeing something of ourselves in her courage and singularity whilst we shudder at the brutal times she lived in, fearful of finding there any reflection of our own.

Works Cited
Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Reprint, 2008.