THE BASS ROCK by Evie Wyld (Book Review)
THE BASS ROCK by Evie Wyld is a bewitching, textured novel that lingers after the last haunting page has turned.
Told in alternating points-of-view, Viviane recounts the present-day arc of the story as she travels from London to clear out the family home on the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Forty-something and suffering from depression, Viviane struggles to thrive even as her name, which means alive, reflects a resilience and courage to bear witness to the stories that shape her life and world.
Ruth’s narrative takes place in the aftermath of World War II, when she moves with Peter, a widower and Viviane’s grandfather, to help raise his two young sons. Her new husband, pleading work, leaves Ruth alone for days at a time. She takes long walks along the Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock looming out to sea, and she develops a tenuous friendship with Betty, the housekeeper, who has her own complicated story. When Ruth invites Bernadette, Betty’s niece, to live in the house, events are set in motion that resonate into the present, creating a fragile, resilient web of connections that reverberate across generations.
Sarah recounts the third thread of the story, which takes place in the 1700’s. Accused of being a witch after being raped in a pig shed, Sarah flees for her life.
The theme of violence towards woman weaves through each story-line. It saturates the misty Scottish coastline where the story takes place and permeates the disembodied fragments that punctuate the main story chapters with chilling tales of women murdered in the woods or at home, in hotel rooms or anywhere at all.
This subject matter would be oppressive in the hands of someone less talented than Wyld. She recounts the grim scenes of violence with unflinching precision, and this same vivid, incisive prose brings the characters, the landscape and their worlds to life. The power of their stories becomes an act of defiance, surmounting the very forces that seek to subjugate and control.
This ability to bring life and stories into the world is a frightening gift, and those whose stories haunt memories and the dark corners of consciousness have long been thought to wield supernatural powers. In THE BASS ROCK, the stories take the form of ghosts. Those who tell them are called witch.
Sarah, after being rescued by one of the villagers, flees into the woods with him and the members of his household. Sarah’s skills and knowledge of plants and animals keep them alive. But when the villager’s son imagines a life with Sarah, children by the hearth, she makes a different choice. The result is inevitable and tragic.
Sarah’s story resonates beyond her place and time, shape-shifting through the centuries until Maggie shows up in the present to save Viviane from an assault. A sometimes sex worker, Maggie ends up on Viviane’s couch at the house by Bass Rock, drinking Viviane’s booze. Viviane asks Maggie what she does.
“I’m a witch.” She says it simply and confidently and it is the single most irritating thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. (p. 133)
Hard-drinking, cigarette smoking, sometimes homeless, Maggie channels the stories that swirl as myth and rumor through the mists of time.
“‘…it’s just a feeling I have…that I’m walking in and out of these deaths and 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…you know that thing when you feel it? Like your blood knows it. I try to take note, because it’s all I have in my power, to witness it and store it away…‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘I might be a wee bit fucked.’” (p. 141)
The women of Wyld’s world are not the only ones who suffer at the hands of violence. Ruth’s husband, Peter, is a veteran of World War II, and Ruth’s beloved brother, Anthony, was killed in the war. Peter is also the product of the same barbaric and abusive boarding school where he sends his own sons, yet his collusion with Reverend Jon Brown is no less horrifying because Peter is a victim of the same monstrosities that reveal themselves over the course of the novel.
Witches, ghosts and violence make for an eerie, heady mix, and the atmosphere of THE BASS ROCK is intoxicating, the prose crisp, immediate, and often witty.
“She has an unlit cigarette in her mouth, ready to go, big curly hair that has been teased and sprayed and she’s wearing pink lipstick. She smiles at me, and says, ‘Late-night ice cream?’ and I feel so flustered I go red and then I laugh too loudly and just say, ‘Plums.’ She smiles back and turns to leave. I’ll be hearing myself saying plums all night.” (p. 7)
Even the most spine-chilling acts of violence are handled with a deft, unflinching touch. Ghosts appear and fade away. “When they look for me I’m gone in a puff of smoke.” (p. 136) The characters, though, remain, startling and alive, a testament to the undaunted, creative power of storytelling, earning THE BASS ROCK an unqualified place on my Books I Love bookshelf!