‘She was a woman and he is a man’ [book review]

A review of The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

I’ll say it straight and upfront: I found The Bass Rock a difficult book to read. I expect, if they’re honest about it, most women – and hopefully men – will do too. This has absolutely nothing to do with Evie Wyld’s compelling style of storytelling and everything to do with the fact that when it comes to violence against women, both psychological and physical, she is so uncompromising that it can make for some pretty tough going. And that, of course, is precisely what makes this novel as important as it is distressing.

The Bass Rock Evie Wyld

I am actually acquainted with the Bass Rock, the ghostly hulk that rises out of the sea opposite North Berwick. My uncle lives in the town, not far from the seafront, and the rock has been a feature of all my trips there, not to mention a framed picture that hangs in my parents’ house. I wonder, having read this novel, what I will feel the next time I see it. Because although it never takes centre stage in any of the action, it is there always, a constant and above all silent witness to each moment of dread and despair that Wyld chooses to narrate for us. By selecting such a taciturn, unmoving object for the title and backdrop of her novel, she makes The Bass Rock into an implicit denunciation of the passive way society tends to act in the face of something that should not be ignored.

Set in three time periods – events move from the 1700s to the present day via the aftermath of the Second World War – The Bass Rock follows the lives of three women, Sarah, Ruth and Viviane, all of whom are connected to one another and suffer in varying but equally terrible ways at the hands of the men in their lives. The novel’s structure resembles the breaking of waves: chapters move from Viviane to Ruth to Sarah and back again, with each section rounded off by a brief but violent episode featuring other (nameless) women who are usually mentioned elsewhere in the story as a sort of side note. Breaking up an otherwise flowing narrative as they do, these fragments can seem quite shocking and serve as a constant reminder that there are many similar stories out there – more than we might ever know.

Moving convincingly between three such disparate settings is no easy task, but Wyld is a careful writer who applies just the right amount of contemporaneous detail and varies her language according to her timeframe, so that each character and period comes across as authentic. She also seems equally at home in the third and the first person, using both easily yet thoughtfully to keep readers most in tune with Viviane (our first person, present-day narrator) and adding increasing layers of distance the further into the past we go. Ruth’s life is narrated from a close third-person perspective, while Sarah’s story, set in the 1700s, is told to us at a further remove, narrated by her young male companion, Joe. This shifting point of view had the pleasing effect of making me feel I was looking at Sarah’s story down the barrel of history – it seemed shaded and cloudy compared to the bright immediacy of Viviane’s voice – but it did also make my emotional reaction to the novel a little unbalanced: in the end I cared far more for Viviane and Ruth than I did for Sarah.

Uniting all three storylines is a deliciously Gothic atmosphere, the creation of which Wyld excels at. There are all the typical tropes of a Gothic novel – a large, empty house that creaks in the corners, stormy weather, abandoned stretches of beach and hillside, neighbours who mutter amongst themselves, brief glimpses of shadowy figures who could just be figments of a nervous imagination. I don’t tend to fare very well with ghost stories myself and found the spectres stalking the pages of The Bass Rock occasionally nudging me towards fear, but this is surely testament to Wyld’s ability to create an absorbing atmosphere. And ultimately, the slight shivers I felt at any mention of the supernatural were nothing compared to the ones caused by the all-too-real abuse meted out to the novel’s central characters. In writing so relentlessly about how men do damage to women, Wyld puts down on paper many of the things I am most afraid to think about.

Although it stems from a dark wellspring of violence, The Bass Rock contains many moments of brightness, both in terms of the images Wyld employs and the relationships she manages to draw between her characters. She is particularly good at navigating the knotty webs that exist between sisters – in Ruth and her sister Alice, but especially in Viviane and Katherine. The way they bicker and dance around one another belies the deep bond that underpins their often-explosive relationship and gives rise to many moments of touching intimacy. There is compassion in this rendering of sisterhood, humour, forgiveness, and the sense of an author who knows what she is talking about.

While women are undoubtedly the main focus of the novel, Wyld casts her net wider to include other difficult subjects – mental health and child abuse being perhaps the main two. The first comes into each section of the story, most sharply in focus in the figure of Viviane, and other times put into the hands of men as yet another weapon with which to cow their women: the threat of the asylum looms large in Ruth’s narrative, while back in the eighteenth century Sarah is declared a witch. It was only when it came to the second of these topics – the abuse that takes place at a boys’ boarding school – that I felt the novel had maybe slightly overreached itself in trying to deal with too many horrors all at once.

The Bass Rock is not meant to be an easy read, I don’t think. Wyld would be doing both her readers and characters a disservice if it was. And despite the fact that it often demands a visceral reaction, its compelling characterisation, atmosphere and air of mystery ensured that this was a novel I was happy to pick up each time I returned to it. Although completely different in style and substance, it put me very much in mind of Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 in the way it uses almost numbing repetition to warn us of the ‘vast and infinite amnesia’ we tend to indulge in when it comes to the injustices and dangers faced by women. Anger burns bright beneath the surface of this story, but so too does an enormous strength. With this, her third novel, Wyld has thrown open a door for more difficult but necessary conversations within and beyond women’s fiction. I for one look forward to seeing what she has to say next.

2 thoughts on “‘She was a woman and he is a man’ [book review]

  1. Great review! This sounds like an incredible read and I am even more excited to pick it up now. The gothic atmosphere and difficult themes really appeal, and I’m so encouraged to hear that the women are characterized well, right down to different uses of language and perspective to differentiate them. I’ll be bumping this up to a “must-read” spot on my TBR. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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