I had felt the pressure again, quite recently, of reading books to deadlines. A few library books had finally arrived at my local library and I had felt that it was imperative to read them before they got passed on to the person who had made the next reservation. This became quite stressful and so I decided rather than try to cram everything in and not give books and myself the reading experience we deserved, I decided to simply pick the one book that I wanted to read and that spoke to me at that time.
That book was Evie Wyld’s ‘The Bass Rock’ and it had been on my TBR pile for quite some time. The paperback front cover of the book is incredibly captivating whilst also being equally unnerving. I am so glad I got to this book. The landscape of the coastal town North Berwick in Scotland feels powerful and majestic whilst also serving to be ominous and claustrophobic, particularly for the female characters. Structured in three parts the novel focuses on the lives of three different women. Sarah, a young girl living in the 1700s, who has been accused by local villagers of being a witch. Ruth a recently married housewife in post-World War Two trying to fit in to the oppressive and prying society around her and finally Viviane who occupies the modern narrative. Viviane is documenting the paintings and artefacts of Ruth’s house whilst also coming to terms with the death of her father, Ruth’s stepson. All of these women fail to fit in with society’s perception of ‘woman.’ They do not behave as others deem they should. Each, in different ways, suffers because of this, usually at the hands of men. Men that are close to them, family members but also total strangers.
Very early on in the novel Viviane is saved by a character called Maggie during a late night stop off at a petrol station. Maggie pretends to know her whilst simultaneously warning her about a man that is crouching behind Viviane’s car. The unease this generated in me as a female reader was both familiar and an unsettling one. A scenario no doubt played out by many females who find themselves in such situations, the vulnerability one feels when travelling alone. Make sure no one is in the car, check back seats, try to stay in the light. I viscerally felt Viviane’s fear at the realisation of the truth of Maggie’s words. Maggie saving her is a poignant moment of solidarity between women that will be a reoccurring preoccupation throughout the text.
Interspersed within these overlapping and compelling narratives are snapshots of violence. Violence that is perpetrated on women, a violence that pervades our society still to this day. The focal point of the Bass Rock within all these narratives looms ominously and uncaring is perhaps illustrative of the lack of change in our attitudes over the centuries. There is a lot of violence and a lot of death within these pages, characters are both haunted psychologically and physically adding to the gothic atmosphere in surprising ways. That is not to say that there is not hope and light. For me, the female friendship of Viviane and Maggie was restorative and filled with humour as was Viviane’s reconciliation with her sister Katherine. Ruth’s narrative and her relationship with their maid Betty felt realistic and filled with warmth. They shared an understanding that seemed to be lacking for Ruth in her relationship with Peter and her stepsons.
A haunting, evocative book both in terms of landscape and character. A critique of the perpetual misogyny that we should always be challenging.