The Bass Rock…
About the Book:
The lives of three women weave together across four centuries in the dazzling new book from Evie Wyld, winner of the Miles Franklin Award.
Surging out of the sea, the Bass Rock has for centuries watched over the lives that pass under its shadow on the Scottish mainland. And across the centuries the fates of three women are linked: to this place, to each other.
In the early 1700s, Sarah, accused of being a witch, flees for her life.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Ruth navigates a new house, a new husband and the strange waters of the local community.
Six decades later, the house stands empty. Viv, mourning the death of her father, catalogues Ruth’s belongings and discovers her place in the past – and perhaps a way forward.
Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life. Intricately crafted and compulsively readable, The Bass Rock burns bright with anger and love.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Evie Wyld but it won’t be the last. This is exactly the sort of novel I love: moody in atmosphere, prickly characters, a compelling plot that slowly unfolds, fact blending with fiction to produce a snapshot of life at its most gruesome.
‘It was a little uncomfortable how much she could affect another person’s life, without it really impacting hers at all.’
The novel is structured in a most interesting way. The main narrative is split into three eras, focusing on three women. Ruth, in the middle of the 20th century, Viv in the present day, and Sarah in the 18th century. Out of these three, Sarah is the only one whose perspective is not represented. These parts of the novel are instead narrated by a young man who falls in love with her after his father has rescued her from the grips of those who were intent on burning her as a witch. Sarah’s story challenges the reader because while she is a woman who has been abused and used, she is also knowledgeable in the ways of surviving. Sarah’s end steers the reader into the place that Evie is reinforcing all throughout the novel, that women get what they deserve, that they invite violence through their own conduct; ‘look what she made me do.’ It’s an uncomfortable realisation when you arrive at this moment within the story, but so blisteringly clever in terms of the way Evie set this up.
‘What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the places they were killed?’
Ruth and Viv are a little more straight forward in terms of characterisation. Whilst violence underpins the entire novel, so too does grief. Ruth and Viv are not just connected over time by family, they are intimately connected by grief. The grief Ruth bears for her brother Antony mirrors the grief Viv carries for her father Michael. Both are not coping, both were committed for psychiatric care for a short time after the deaths. Their circumstances raises the question as to why there must be an expiry date for grief. As though to feel it more deeply or for far longer is something to be ashamed of. Ruth and Viv were both prickly characters; they drank too much, swore too much, didn’t conform to the expectations of those around them. This just made both of them more authentic to me and I loved them for their messy hearts.
‘Alice had her hand on Antony’s shoulder to better see what was inside, and Ruth’s fingers clasped his shirt. All three of them smiling as though the contents of the box confirmed the existence of magic. Antony’s face was lit as though the thing in the box glowed. Perhaps Nanny had set up the photograph to use as a Christmas card. She had no memory of it being taken, but she could feel the flannel of Antony’s shirt in her fist.’
There is another element to this novel’s structure, a series of vignettes that bracket the main parts. These are episodes of violence perpetrated against women, examples of the many ways in which female lives throughout history have been extinguished by men. These are the pieces that frame Sarah’s picture; the pieces that all have the same words written on their backs: that it was all her fault, she brought it onto herself. These sections are not easy to read. They’re not meant to be. They are designed to make you feel horrified; to feel anguish; to feel rage.
‘There will be shouts of anger and sadness, of revenge, and those that say she brought it upon herself walking so far from the village alone.’
‘—a stupid decision to come at night to collect seaweed next to the camp. What was she expecting to find?’
‘…she shouldn’t have drunk the cider, and been late, she shouldn’t have taken the shortcut, he pushes his thumbs into the soft dip in her throat like he is pushing through the thick skin of an orange.’
The passive acceptance that violence is to not only be endured, but expected and accepted is a theme explored over and over. Christopher’s and Michael’s horrendous experiences at boarding school; the way in which their father endorsed that system as a means of making boys into men. The fact that this violence against young boys could damage them beyond repair was never considered, just that it was a necessary means to ensure they didn’t grow up to be soft. The bizarre annual picnic that Ruth was forced to attend, whereby women were dressed up and masked for a game of adult hide and seek whereby the men, who were the seekers, took the liberty to tickle the women once they were found until the woman gave up her identity. The tickling a form of assault, for what grown woman wants a drunk man digging his fingers into her torso, up under her skirts, and all over her breasts. Viv experiences a tickling assault as well, by a man she is intimate with and I appreciated how Evie included these episodes into the novel. As a child, I had an uncle who used to chase me and pin me to the floor and tickle me quite hard, to the point of pain. It got so that I used to run away from the house when he would visit. As a mother, I’ve never allowed adults to tickle my children, these episodes lodged into my bones as something I did not want them to have to endure. Seeing tickling within this novel portrayed with a violating intent was profound; it’s a form of control that demands submission, an act where the tickler will always have the upper hand. It’s unasked for, as violence is unasked for. And people continue to do it and when the tickled person speaks out against it, they are accused of having no sense of fun, of taking everything too seriously.
‘You didn’t report these things. It was all part of life, we were led to believe. And honestly there was much worse that went on.’
For a novel with such grave and heavy themes, it is surprisingly light in parts to read. Evie writes so beautifully, capturing moments with intensity and feeling. She is also very witty, deadpan at times, more obvious at others. There are bad men in this novel, but there are also good ones. This is an important novel, a vital one.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Bass Rock for review.
About the Author:
Evie Wyld grew up in Australia and the UK. She is part owner of Review, a small independent bookshop in London. Her first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award. In 2011 she was listed as one of the Culture Show’s Best New British Novelists. She was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. In 2013 she was listed as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Evie’s second novel, All The Birds, Singing, was published in 2013. It was longlisted for the 2014 Stella Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She is the winner of the 2013 Encore Award, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and the 2014 Miles Franklin Award. Her graphic novel with illustrator Joe Sumner, Everything Is Teeth, was published in 2015.
The Bass Rock
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released 4th February 2020