Evie Wyld won the Miles Franklin Award for her last novel, All the Birds, Singing. Her latest, set on the coast of Scotland, contains both beauty and violence.
The Bass Rock opens with a small girl, who we will shortly meet as the grown-up Viv, finding the body of a woman in a suitcase on the beach. As her mother cries, ‘Come away, come away,’ the child sees inside the suitcase:
… an eye that seemed to look back at me, that seemed to know something about me and to ask a question and give an answer. In the memory, which is a child’s memory and unreliable, the eye blinks.
And thus Evie Wyld sets out her two main themes: violence against women, and the uncanny. In true Gothic style, we meet wolves, foxes, visions, ghosts. A sinuous thread of unease runs through it all, at times shading into explicit danger.
The novel is set in North Berwick, a small town on the south shore of Scotland’s Firth of Forth. Just off the coast looms the sheer-sided bulk of the Bass Rock. Viv remembers it from childhood:
… peering over my shoulder while I crept up on limpets in the rock pools. You used to feel it leaning into the outdoor swimming pool in town, like it should cast a shadow over us.
The structure of the novel is tidal, washing from the present to the past, to the further past, and back again. The present, narrated in the first person by Viv, is the most immediate and immediately recognisable, but Ruth’s story in the postwar years in the middle of the twentieth century, and Sarah’s story in a time of poverty, famine and witchburning, each have their own shape, energy and resolution. All three contain incidents and themes that resonate through the others.
Viv is in North Berwick to clear out the old family home before it is sold, driving back and forth to her flat in London. She would like to see herself as:
… the sort of woman who is here to work. Who is doing her family a favour, not the other way round. I am no longer the person who failed every day last June to get out of bed before midday. Who stopped going to work and seeing her friends and answering the phone, and had to be driven by her sister to the hospital when the breath stopped coming in and going out, and who could only make one long lowing noise.
Mental illness – or at least others’ perception of it – also features in Ruth’s story, set in the years immediately following the Second World War. Ruth is married to the man who will become Viv’s grandfather, and they live in the house that present-day Viv is clearing out.
Ruth is her husband’s second wife, and there might be a touch of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in her situation, except in Ruth’s case the housekeeper, Betty, becomes an ally. Nevertheless, the first wife casts a long shadow:
[Ruth] was aware, as she had been hundreds of times, how easily it could have been another woman standing there, doing the things she was doing. She wished she could say, ‘Just tell me how she would do it and I’ll do it like her.’
Gradually, another presence within the house reveals itself to Ruth. A half-glimpsed figure on the stairs. A knocking from inside a wardrobe.
In the more distant past, we first meet Sarah as she is rescued from the young men who, having raped her, now want to burn her. (‘She bewitched me!’ one shouts as he pulls up his breeches. ‘She has bewitched the men as well as the land,’ shouts another.) Her rescuer is Callum, and it is Callum’s son Joseph who recounts the family’s subsequent flight from the village into the forest, and how Sarah, daughter of a herbalist accused of witchcraft, comes to care for them.
Joseph watches her make a fire and wonders:
For how long has she lived on nothing but roots and vines? … It is not the life I would give her. I would find meat for her, I would make money to buy bread. I wallow a moment in the image of us, our small children at my feet, my hand on her knee.
Inevitably, this vision does not come to pass.
This is an unabashedly polemical novel, but the stories of its three protagonists are so gripping, written so intimately and viscerally, that it also engages as fiction.
Its aim is explicitly set out by Maggie, a self-described witch who befriends Viv. Maggie carries a map of East Lothian marked with small crosses denoting women who have been murdered since January that year. ‘What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once?’ she asks Viv.
‘…it’s just a feeling I have [that] I should at least notice, I should notice because I’m not dead yet, and there’s no difference between these women and me, or you or your mother or the lady in the tea shop. We’re just breezing in and out of the death zone. Wading through the dead.’
Presumably Wyld, like Maggie, wanted to encompass the stories of all the women who had died at the hands of men, and that is why, at the end of each of the novel’s seven parts, she has included a vignette of an unnamed woman experiencing violence at the hands of a man. Sometimes rape, sometimes murder, sometimes merely her body left to rot on the forest floor.
These interludes stand outside the central stories, and in their brevity and anonymity tend to merge into an undifferentiated mass of suffering.
In her acknowledgements at the end of the book Wyld thanks Sherele Moody for her Femicide and Child Death Map which, she writes, ‘feels like the baseline of what I think about’. Certainly the numbers of women murdered are shocking. In Australia alone, at the end of February, nine women have already been killed this year.
In making the links between the generations, Wyld presents a kind of impressionistic history of violence against women, and she does it in a novel that is intensely atmospheric, conjuring the life of the forests: butterflies ‘white and blue and black’ coasting on the air; a fox curled asleep in the bracken, its little ribs rising and falling; the smell of damp earth and the rotting stench of the stinkhorn fungus.
And there is light among the darkness: Viv’s dry observations and self-deprecation, the moments of immersion in nature, of communion, transcendence even, that make the novel sing. Whether the inclusion of the vignettes overstates a theme already made clear without them, the novel remains an absorbing, and disturbing, account of three women’s lives and the violence that surrounds them.
Evie Wyld The Bass Rock Vintage 2020 PB 368pp $32.99
This review was first published in the Newtown Review of Books on 28 February 2020.