Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Evie Wyld’s third novel has the most stunning opening I’ve encountered in a long time. In under a page and a half, it describes a six-year-old child walking with her mother and their dog on a beach and finding a suitcase containing a woman’s dismembered corpse. Where the zipper has broken open, a few fingers and an eye are visible. “In the memory, which is a child’s memory and unreliable, the eye blinks.” It’s the sort of scene you might expect in a mystery about a serial killer, but in literary fiction it’s jolting, even grotesque. But boy, did it draw me in. It’s one in a series of unpaginated vignettes of violence against women that punctuate the three main story lines, which themselves depict situations in which women fear men’s brutality and dare to make bids for freedom – meeting with varying levels of success.
While it ranges across the centuries, the novel always sticks close to the title location, an uninhabited island in the Firth of Forth off the east coast of Scotland. Just as the louring rock is inescapable in the distance if you visit Musselburgh or look out from the Edinburgh hills, there’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of the novel. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me that hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission.
The story lines are labelled I, II and III, which helps considerably with keeping straight what could otherwise have been a confusing structure. I: A contemporary first-person narrative from Viv. A single 40-ish woman with a history of mental illness and alcoholism, she is trying to be a bit less useless by clearing and guarding her grandmother and great-aunt’s house while it’s on the market. She makes regular drives up from her home in London to North Berwick. Her irregular sleeping and eating patterns lend these segments a hallucinogenic mood, like she’s entered a time outside of time – enhanced by the presence of a red-haired female ghost.
Story line II, set in the 1950s, is a third-person account of Ruth Hamilton’s difficulty in settling into her Scotland home with her new husband and two stepsons. Multiple miscarriages haven’t helped her mental health, which has been tenuous ever since her beloved brother died in the War. She discovers that there are certain expectations of her, from the community and specifically from Reverend Jon Brown, and what with her shaky marriage, she’s not sure she can be the pillar and matriarch everyone wants her to be.
With III we go deeper into the past, to the early 1700s, and return to a first-person perspective, this time from a teenage boy named Joseph, who recounts how he and his father rescued Sarah, a suspected witch, from the pig house where she was being held and gang-raped. For Joseph’s father, keeping Sarah safe is a way of atoning for the loss of his daughter, who was found dead in the woods. But Sarah’s behaviour soon puts them all in danger and they must flee. While this seemed to me the least essential of the three narratives, I saw it as embodying the ‘she was asking for it’ claim.
The novel cycles through these three strands, moving from I to III and then back down to I. This ebb and flow pattern seems appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. Although there are distinct connections between the various sections – these are especially strong between I and II, as readers first learn on page 52 – this is not a puzzle novel where everything fits together in a satisfying manner. Instead, it is a haunting echo chamber where themes and elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. Sisters and mothers; dogs, wolves and foxes; abundant and rotting fruits; a special box: these are the sorts of totem objects and metaphors that the novel relies on.
I find myself not wanting to go into specifics with this review, for fear of spoilers but also because it is difficult to convey the mysterious air of menace that Wyld creates as she builds the tale layer by layer. I will limit myself, then, to just one instance of doubling, chosen because it conveys particularly well how insidious the devaluing of women is. Ruth is tasked with hosting a beach picnic that turns into a ghastly ritual. In a big game of hide and seek, all the local women put on masks and the men go and find them, tickling the disguised women mercilessly until they give up their identities. Later, Viv has a bad experience when she mentions to a lover that she hates being tickled and he then deliberately tickles her. To him it’s just sex play, but to her it’s a conscious violation. For both Viv and Ruth, the tickling is not a harmless joke but an arresting glimpse into the sadism that undermines everyday life.
There is much more that could be said about the plot, but all of its outworkings – adultery, bullying, incarceration, molestation, domestic violence, (marital) rape, murder, mutilation – point back to the fact of women’s and children’s helplessness and victimhood. The predator and prey relationship recurs again and again. I suspect that for some this may be so disturbing, or monotonous, a picture of life that it will be too painful or infuriating to read. Revenge is rare in this fictional world. Still, I was relieved to see that not all the male characters are vile – Viv’s uncle and late father, at least, are good guys – and in general I saw the novel as achieving its noble goal of exposing a hidden history. As Viv’s new friend Maggie, a homeless sex worker and self-described witch, puts it: “What would it take? What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once?”
With statistics suggesting that domestic violence is on the rise during lockdown, this timely read has taken on added significance. It is far and away the best 2020 novel I’ve read, memorable for its elegant, time-blending structure as well as its unrelenting course – and set against that perfect backdrop of an indifferent monolith. It may well end up as my novel of the year. Especially if you’re a fan of Claire Fuller (especially Our Endless Numbered Days), Sarah Moss (Ghost Wall) and Lucy Wood (Weathering), it’s a must-read.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Evie Wyld, The Bass Rock (Jonathan Cape: London, 2020). 978-1911214397, 362 pp., hardback.
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