Evie Wyld’s new novel, The Bass Rock, is a remarkable piece of work. It’s a long time since I’ve read a novel that has engaged me so thoroughly and moved me to the extremes of this book. Set over three different time periods, the present day, post-World War II and the seventeenth century, the narrative focuses primarily on the lives of three different women, all linked by location and by the looming presence of the Bass Rock. Just as the rock stands immovable, dark and brooding over the landscape, so too does the question of male sexual violence darken the lives not only of Viviane, Ruth and Sarah but also of the nameless, beaten women whose stories punctuate the seven segments into which Wyld organises her book.
In each of the main storylines the focus rests upon a woman whose relationship with both herself and those around her is to some extent dictated by the men in her life. In the present day, Viviane, commuting between London and Scotland, where she has been tasked with the job of closing down the old family home of her recently dead father, is wracked with guilt at having slept with her sister, Katherine’s, husband, Dom, while at the same time beginning a tentative relationship with Vincent, a man she meets in a queue. In the post war period the narrative centres around Ruth, second wife of the widowed Peter, whose younger son, Michael, is Viviane’s father. Very aware that in the eyes of many she does not live up to the expectations associated with the ‘Lady of the Big House’ and often lonely given the boys absence at school and Peter’s frequent expeditions to London for work, Ruth makes friends with Betty, their cook cum housekeeper and through her begins to understand what motivates the disturbing undercurrents she finds in the society around her. The final strand, set in 1600s, centres on Sarah, proclaimed a witch and forced to flee with a family who, to all intents and purposes, are running not only to protect her but also themselves. These segments are perhaps less well worked than those relating to Viviane and Ruth, but the menace felt by Sarah, the constant danger that she is in simply because she is a woman, is much more directly communicated. And, between each of the seven major segments there is the story of a series of unnamed women, united by the violence that they suffer at the hands of men. The universality of the theme that Wyld is exploring is given explicit voice quite late in the book:
I can see that there are people in the kitchen with us, there are children and women, all holding hands like us, and I wonder, is this the ghost everyone sees, is it in fact a hundred thousand different ghosts? It’s only possible to focus on one at a time. They spill out of the doorway, and I see through the wall that they fill the house top to bottom, they are locked in wardrobes, they are under the floorboards, they crowd out of the back door into the garden, they are on the golf course and on the beach and their heads bob out of the sea, and when we walk, we are walking right through them. The birds on the Bass Rock, they fill it, they are replaced by more, their numbers do not diminish with time, they nest on the bones of the dead.
Apparently, Wyld was in the middle of writing the novel when the #MeToo movement began and it is clear to see that she is exploring many of the issues relating to violence towards women which that brought to light. However, it would be to diminish this book to suggest that it is nothing more than a feminist tract. There are good men in the book, especially Christopher, Michael‘s elder brother, and, by implication, Michael himself. Both of them, as boys, have suffered at the hands of predatory men and equally both of them have suffered as a result of a conspiracy on the part of other men who have power over them, to refute any complaint that they might make. Both of them appear to grow up to be decent human beings. It is also the case that to some extent society has conditioned women to be instrumental in their own suffering. We see this in the way in which the post war women readily take part in a traditional picnic that ends in a rite which has obvious sexual overtones and it is there in the attitude of Ruth‘s mother who has no sympathy for Judith‘s loss of a daughter, she had lost her only son after all, which was surely worse than losing a daughter. And, there is also the suggestion that when faced with violence, women don’t always act in their own best interest, almost as if accepting that such treatment is inevitable. When Viviane and Katherine are threatened by an angry Dom on both occasions their response is to freeze rather than to assert their right to safety.
The Bass Rock is a powerful and most beautifully written novel and I was gripped by it from beginning to end. My only question is this: can somebody please explain to me why such an excellent book is not on the long list for the Women’s Prize this year?
With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing Jonathan Cape and NetGalley for a review copy.