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The Bass Rock: Challenging and gripping read

Book review: Violence against women is prominent in Evie Wyld’s complex novel

The Bass Rock
The Bass Rock
Author: Evie Wyld
ISBN-13: 9781911214397
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £16.99

When a novel has been a long time coming, it may be because the author has worked hard to achieve a new complexity in their writing; or because they had some difficulty bringing it to birth; or because they were busy doing other things. Reading Evie Wyld’s third novel, which comes seven years after her last, the first reason seems the most plausible.

The Bass Rock is complex, rich, challenging, and her longest book. But the other reasons shouldn’t be disregarded: Wyld has said that she started the book when she had a new baby, with limited time to write; and that it wasn’t initially clear to her that the various stories she was writing were all part of the same novel.

As with her previous books, which won Wyld high acclaim and a place on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list in 2013, this is a jumpy, scattered novel, where the reader has to do a certain amount of work to fit the pieces together, and even then a complete picture is not always achieved.

There are three main narrative strands, all set around the Scottish town of North Berwick, which looks out over the Firth of Forth and the Bass Rock, a small island which is now uninhabited but was once the site of a Christian hermitage and later a prison for the enemies of the Catholic King, James I. Its isolated position and rugged geography provide handy allegorical qualities.


In what seems to be the present day, Viv, a fortysomething woman, rattles through her life in a slightly chaotic way, mourning the death of her father (“a memory of Dad in the hospice, husky and mustard yellow”), regretting a fling with her brother-in-law, and house-sitting in her father’s childhood home pending its sale.

In the mid-20th century, Ruth is finding her way in a new family as a wife and stepmother, and at the same time negotiating life in a close-knit village where she suddenly finds herself with a central role. And in the 18th century, an unnamed narrator helps a young woman accused of being a witch to escape community “justice”.

Each section of the book ends with a short scene, on unnumbered pages to set it apart from the others, depicting a different act of violence against a woman or its aftermath

The connections between Ruth’s and Viv’s lives slowly become apparent, but there is also thematic connection between all three stories. Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, The Bass Rock offers a universal history of subjugation and oppression – but specifically focusing on male violence against women.

Viv’s story is especially strong in this regard. It opens with a clever and wrong-footing scene in a supermarket car park, features what may be literature’s first truly sinister and upsetting scene of tickling, and includes this immortal comment: “Do you know the age range of women most often killed by men? Thirty-six to forty-five. Know why that is? They’ve finished breeding with us, but we’re still f**kable.”

As well as the three main strands, each section of the book ends with a short scene, on unnumbered pages to set it apart from the others, depicting a different act of violence against a woman or its aftermath (“When it is done, the three men look on at the girl”). These are vivid and often sickening in effect, even when the act itself is not shown. “He pushes his thumbs into the soft dip in her throat like he is pushing through the thick skin of an orange.”

The fact that most of the male characters in the book are dangerous may be grist to the mill for the #NotAllMen brigade, but that would be to complain that the only Germans in Raiders of the Lost Ark are Nazis. The point of the book is to highlight it, not hide it.

However, not all the narratives are equally effective. The scenes in the story of the “witch” are short and feel more like mood music than integrally connected to the other threads. By contrast, Ruth’s story is so wide-ranging and features so many strands and characters that I found them hardest to engage with. The fact that it’s in the third person – the other two are first person narratives – adds to the sense of distance.

It’s Viv’s story which really shines and carries the book’s emotional weight. She’s a complete, troubled but sympathetic character and could drive a novel on her own. The violence in her life, and which runs through the book like veins in marble, means that even at its most vivid and gripping, The Bass Rock can be a grim read. Escape is possible, it seems to say, but only en route to the next act of destruction.

John Self

John Self is a contributor to The Irish Times