Book review: The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld

I would like to say I enjoyed this novel, but enjoyment would seem to be a singularly inappropriate response to it. It is a kind of lure, and it deals with ideas of luring in quite remarkable ways. Wyld’s previous two novels were both artfully constructed. After The Fire, A Still Small Voice was a fragmented history of damage across three generations of a family; All The Birds, Singing had a single, female protagonist in two temporal trajectories, a present day that progressed forwards and flashbacks that unfurled, as it were, anti-clockwise, each further into the past.
Evie WyldEvie Wyld
Evie Wyld

This book is as equally ingenious, if not more so. The virtue of this kind of dislocated narration is that it allows the novelist to withhold information, to make the reader speculate on possible connections and how the different parts of the story interlock. It is a high-risk strategy: too neat and it seems like clockwork, too many loose threads and it seems ill-conceived. But here it is done with a very judicious blend of revelation and mystery.

The narrative is divided into seven sections, named mostly after islands around the East Lothian coast of Scotland, and each section subdivides into three strands, nested into each other: I, II, III, II, I. There is a brief page and a half of overture, which sets up many of the themes and images, and between each section there is an interlude. It takes no small amount of skill to juggle such a structure. Through it all, the Bass Rock of the title glowers, eerily close and distant at the same time.

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The “I” sections are the first person, present-day story of Viviane, whose father has recently died and who has had a nervous breakdown. As part of her recuperation, she has been asked by the family to go back to dispose of the effects in the family’s rather faded pile, prior to its sale.

The “II” sections introduce Ruth, who has just moved into the house, though we are now in the post-Second World War period. She has recently married a widower, who has two sons, and is struggling with this new rural and often lonely place. The “III sections” concentrate on Sarah, in the 1700s, who has been accused of being a witch and who is helped to escape the paranoid locals in the company of a disgraced preacher and the remnants of his family. Certain images chime, or rather toll, over the centuries: stinkhorns, pineapples, pet dogs, quite a lot of rotting flesh and oddly enough 300 years of poor cuisine in Scotland. Many readers will be familiar with this kind of genealogical Chinese box, and will quickly predict what happens next in terms of atmosphere.

Things become gothic. The rural gothic has been a noticeable feature in the past few years, and I am still pondering why. Here we have a lurker in a car-park, a beached basking shark, strange noises and the sense of not being wholly alone, stories about Sarah’s mother. Perhaps the creepiest is the parish minister in the II sections, who might be pleasingly eccentric but might be deeply dangerous. In one set piece scene, he organises a picnic for schoolchildren with a hide-and-seek game for the adults which swiftly becomes something very nasty indeed.

The twist, the lure, of the book is made explicit in a speech given by a quirky woman, Maggie, whom Viv meets in the present and who seems a fey if earthy presence. Over wine and cigarettes she gives a genuine polemic about “forgetting, it’s about the vast and infinite amnesia. We forget the torture, the rape, the tit rippers, the scold’s bridles, the loss one by one of our fingernails, then fingers”.

It is an unremitting and necessarily uncomfortable speech about misogyny not being an aberration, but an endemic and underlying fact of the way the world is and has been. Wyld lures the reader into what might have been any other split-time frame, slightly quirky novel and then lets rip. As the men lure the women, the writer lures the reader.

What is very clever indeed is to use the gothic as part of this bold book. In effect, it is as much as disguise as a predator’s balaclava. The gothic allows for a certain comfort zone, that horrors are supernatural, that the nasty thing in the woodshed is a ghost or a goblin. No, the nasty thing is a human man. There is a decent man in the book, and he is a lush, and berates himself for not being a murderer. Wyld has constructed an elaborate trap. It is not about millennial angst, or post-war stifled politeness, or historical witchery. It is about the war that seems unending.

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With each novel, Wyld gets better and better. I will personally snub anyone who dismisses this book as a #MeToo novel. It is – importantly – written with dreadful clarity. Anyone who can write a sentence like “Mum is capable and organised and contained. She can make me feel like an old sock” with “answering and unasked question” next is a serious, serious writer.

The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

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