The Bass Rock
The Bass Rock opens with a memory, or a dream, where six-year-old Vivianne, whose adult self is one of the narrators of the novel proper, discovers a woman’s body in a suitcase, washed up on the beach near her grandmother’s house. The memory is important, not only because it is a formative experience for Vivianne and one that haunts her adult life, but also because it sets up The Bass Rock’s central concern: this is a novel about the centuries-long history of violence committed against women, and the legacies this might leave.
The novel takes its title from the name of a rugged and rocky island off the eastern coast of Scotland, one that is clearly visible from a shore that is wild and windswept too. The house Vivianne is visiting in this memory sits above the beach, on the outskirts of a small coastal town – a setting as isolated and eerie as that of Wyld’s previous novel, All the Birds, Singing, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2014.
The landscape is very much a character in both books – dark and foreboding, and shaping the lives of the people who inhabit it. At one point in The Bass Rock, a character refers to the “whole landscape” as “a giant monster” with an “indifferent” sky. There is always a sense of something untameable and inhuman existing just outside the confines of the house.
The novel unfolds over three different eras: Vivianne is narrating from the present, where she is assisting her family in cataloguing and packing up her dead grandmother Ruth’s belongings from the old house; while Ruth’s story unfolds in the years after World War II, when she has just moved into this home with her new husband and his two sons from a previous marriage. Interspersed with these is a story set more than 200 years before, narrated by the son of a priest who has just rescued Sarah, a teenage girl accused of witchcraft, from their home village; the pair flee to the coast to save her from persecution.
What links these stories is the outlier status of their female protagonists – each of them exists, to various extents, beyond the pale of her society. Each of them is thought eccentric at best, but more often dangerous or mad, by the people who surround them. Wyld is interested in how the charge of madness is, and has been, weaponised against women – from the charges of witchcraft levelled against Sarah, to the unsettling psychological manipulation and gaslighting Ruth’s husband subjects her to, and the hospitalisations experienced in the past by both Vivianne and Ruth at times when their emotions had become unruly. Yet another character is institutionalised because her presence is inconvenient and embarrassing for powerful men in the town. In all these cases, the reader has insight into the emotions and responses of these women who are delegitimised by the society around them, and the sense of injustice is one of the drivers of the novel.
The novel is also interested in the kinds of women who would probably have been considered witches had they been contemporaries of Sarah’s – women who live alone or don’t quite fit in, women with illnesses such as epilepsy, and women such as Vivianne’s friend Maggie, who has an interest in herbal remedies and is also a sex worker; Maggie even explicitly refers to herself as a witch.
There’s a slipperiness between the past and present in The Bass Rock, both in motifs that recur across the time frames, and in the way the modern characters feel haunted by other presences they can’t quite see within the seaside house. Trauma, too, is passed down along the generations, and never quite resolved.
The Bass Rock is most fascinating, though, for the way in which so much of the information Wyld conveys is rendered uncertain or unreliable – many of the biographical and narrative facts of the book are hinted at, suggested or undercut by other perspectives. Truth, here, isn’t something that is easily settled upon, something that can ever really be known – and the novel is full of gaps and silences. So much of the lives of these women, Wyld seems to be suggesting, happens outside what is speakable or what would be believed if it were said. So much of it has been sanctioned and silenced by the people and society that surround them.
Wyld’s work has always explored trauma, and how it is suppressed or repressed, as well as how it bursts out, at times, from beneath these strictures and veneers. There’s an almost Gothic sensibility at play in The Bass Rock, both in keeping with and subtly subverting this long tradition of stories about women and madness. The fact that Wyld’s main narrators – the delightfully acerbic Vivianne and the gentle, anxious Ruth – are so finely and complexly drawn means the psychological pressure that each experiences is all the more acute, and as real as it is otherworldly.
The Bass Rock is a haunting novel, not in the least because of the darkness and the violence at its core. Wyld has a masterful control over the book’s atmosphere, as well as the subtle interactions between her characters, which always speak of some more complicated dynamic at play. At times, there is a slight unevenness between the different narrative threads – Sarah’s story from the 1720s, in particular, does not always feel as fully formed as Ruth’s or Vivianne’s – and their overlaying within the novel isn’t always effortless or neat. But this is an impressive novel nonetheless, and one that is both important and timely, contributing as it does to a continuing conversation about the suppression of women’s voices and experiences, and the violence committed against them.
Vintage, 368pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Evie Wyld, The Bass Rock". Subscribe here.