Author: Kate Worsley
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / British / Nautical / British Navy / Lady's Maid / LGBT / Cross-Dressing / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Bloomsbury USA (6/18/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did, with great effort.
One-sentence summary: A country milkmaid becomes a ladies maid in 18th century Harwich and a teenage boy is press ganged into the British Navy.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- just stunning.
I'm reminded of...: Sarah Waters, Jack Wolf
First line: It's the singing that wakes him.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like Sarah Waters-esque historicals and sinuous, snakey writing.
Why did I get this book?: Queering history is always good in my book! (No pun intended.)
Review: I'm sort of stunned I'm not in swoons over this book because it really seems like the type I would go ga-ga for: the author was mentored by Sarah Waters, writes in very lyrical, literary style, and tackles her characters in an unusual manner. And yet -- I wasn't wild for this book. (It was good but not a favorite for this year.)
Set in 1740, the novel follows Louise -- a farm girl warned off sailors due to the dangerous allure of the sea, who ends up in Harwich, acting as a lady's maid to the daughter of a sea captain -- and Luke, a teenaged boy press ganged into His Majesty's Navy. Both face unimaginable hardships (although Luke's experiences are so particularly horrifying, I am once again grateful for child protection laws, reform of military, etc.) in pursuit of happiness and freedom.
The chapters alternate between Louise, first person, past tense, directed at 'you', and Luke, third person, present tense. Worsley's style reminded me very much of Sarah Waters, who was her mentor; the narrative is cool, aloof, a little obfuscated, well wrought, and smart.
In dual narratives, I almost always find myself drawn more to one character, and in this case, I was more interested in Louise's story. Partially it's one I'm familiar with -- girl falls for girl -- and I like novels about women in service. Unlike some readers, I didn't find Louise's infatuation with her mistress to be improbable, despite the sort one-dimensionality to the women and in many ways, the stilted 'courtship' felt very historically authentic.
The pacing of the novel is very deliberate, slow, although there are moments of high action. It's obvious that Louise's and Luke's paths will cross and the tension is in learning how; I was surprised when the moment came how things turned out, and it made what happened earlier a little more clear. (I will admit I struggled the first 100-or-so pages to get into the story.)
There's some stomach-turning violence in this one, especially toward women. (There's a throwaway comment by a character early on about he and fellow sailors essentially raped a woman to death. I had to put the book down, it was so upsetting.) That these attitudes reflect a historical reality makes it all the more distressing, and certainly takes some of the gloss off Georgian romances I'm so fond of. (I love Austen's Captain Wentworth and in my head, he's a different sailor than these men. Please.) There's nothing openly gory, which makes, perhaps, the violence all the more chilling, but be warned: this isn't a sweet Austen-era romance, queer or otherwise!
Unexpected and surprising, this book might be the winner for one that's made me most uncomfortable in 2013. (Actually, I think it ties with Jack Wolf's The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones for most disturbing.) Those who love literary fiction with queer themes will enjoy this as well as those who are sticklers about historical grimness.
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