Past lives meet modern psychology in this surprising novel that brings the history of English fishing to life.
A herring girl is a young woman who guts herring as they come in from the sea, and this book’s eponymous herring girl lives in two bodies: Annie, in 1898, from North Shields, a coastal England town that runs on fish, and Ben, in 2007, a 12-year-old boy in the same town who's convinced he is a girl. Ben has always felt Annie’s presence internally, though he keeps this a secret, experimenting with women’s clothing and makeup for comfort. As his experimentation grows bolder, he's referred to Dr. Mary Charlton, who proposes that his longing to be a girl is because he was Annie in a past life. The suggestion (possibly offensive to some readers) that transgender people may have unresolved issues from past lives brings up a long-hidden murder which turns out to involve the past lives of Ben’s friends and family. As Dr. Charlton regresses one character after another into past lives, the book moves between 2007 and 1898. The chapters set during the regressions are the best parts of the book by far; Taylor (The Fourth Queen, 2003, etc.) evokes the fishy world of North Shields in great dialogue and detail, without intruding on the human drama that gives the book its energy. When the tale comes back to 2007, however, it loses its path. The theories of past lives and group reincarnation are far too convenient and require a great deal of exposition, and most of the present-day subplots detract from the story. Despite this, the resolution of the mystery is satisfying, as are the very real connections between the characters past and present.
A great book for historical fiction readers, if they can wade through the present day to get there.