The Bass Rock
The Bass Rock (Creag nam Bathais) is a massive rock island rising some 350 feet up out of the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Looming only one mile offshore and three miles northeast of North Berwick, it is a dark presence in Evie Wyld’s multi-generational novel about both the violence men do to women and the resilience of women’s bodies and spirits. The novel opens on an idyllic scene of a mother and her six-year-old daughter on a beach looking at tide pools. The young girl spots a suitcase in a rock pool and then, “two fingers tipped with red nails and one grey knuckle where a third finger should have been […] peeking through the gaps between the white fingers was an eye that seemed to look back at me, that seemed to know something about me…” The young girl is Viv (for Viviane) and much of the novel focuses on her later life as a woman struggling with grief at the death of her father, and difficult relationships with her sister Katherine and mother, Bernadette.
While Viv’s story is set in present day, the novel shifts to incorporate the stories of Ruth (Viv’s step-grandmother), and Sarah—a young girl accused of witchcraft in a much earlier time. The shifting narratives are clearly numbered (I, II, III) and interspersed with shorter stories of women suffering violence, abuse, and horrific murder at the hands of men, all in the same area around North Berwick. Viv has been hired to clear out Ruth’s massive house by the sea and as she does the work of sorting paintings and photographs, we hear Ruth’s story. Married to Peter, a cold and cruelly manipulative widower, Ruth struggles to be a good wife and good mother to his two boys Christopher and Michael. Ruth also takes in their housekeeper Betty’s niece Bernadette (Viv’s mother) whose own mother is confined to a sanitorium. Bernadette becomes friends with Christopher and Michael and, eventually, marries Michael and is mother to Viv and Katherine. It’s a complex narrative of family relations, linked destinies, and terrible secrets.
Like any good gothic novel, there is a dark old house full of noises and things that go bump in the night, there are ghosts and there are witches. But these are not malevolent ghosts and the witches are there to resist, to protect, and to balance male violence. Early on in the novel, Maggie, a local homeless sometimes-sex worker befriends Viv at the supermarket warning her about a man waiting in the dark near her car. Viv offers Maggie a ride and the two begin an uneasy friendship. Maggie sounds “mad” to Viv when she launches into a litany of a series of murders in the past year, all done by different men but to Maggie no different than a serial killer, “‘What would it take?’ she says. ‘What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the places they were killed?’”
But not all of the men in the novel are monsters: both Viv and Ruth are women grieving good men. Viv’s father Michael was gentle, funny, and loving and Viv is having trouble moving on. She neglects her apartment and worries even the job she’s been given housesitting and clearing out Ruth’s house will be too much for her. Ruth, we learn in her narrative, is also grieving, having never recovered from the loss of her brother in the war. She imagines him in birds and prays for a baby that will take his form. She, like Viv, spends a short time in a mental hospital and Ruth’s husband threatens to send her back whenever she doesn’t behave as he’d like (including submitting to marital rape). Ruth suffers horribly but ultimately finds strength in her friendship with Betty and together they help each other survive.
Haunted by ghosts and unspecified fears, Viv refers to an image of a “wolfman” chasing her through the dark, appearing at her window, and discovers later that both her father and uncle also feared “the wolfman”—a reference to abuse they both suffered at boarding school. When Maggie learns Viv is seeing someone, she asks “What is he? A wolf or a fox?” But Viv’s Vincent is more of a buffoon who inserts himself into Viv’s life and then refuses to leave. Predators appear as symbols throughout the novel: wolves in the woods, the “wolfman” chasing Viv and her father and uncle, and in Ruth’s story a horrific scene of a malevolent reverend on the sand near the body of a massive beached shark covered in feasting seagulls. Wyld refuses to let us look away from the violence in life and we can’t help but stare.
The sections tracing Sarah’s short life, while giving historical depth, are riveting (we all know what’s going to happen but have to read it anyway) but not as intimate as Viv’s and Ruth’s stories. Told in first person by a young man who helps rescue Sarah from being burned as a witch and then blames her for his own inability to control his lust, this is the only part of the novel where we see a woman entirely through the male gaze; it’s chilling but also not as rewarding as hearing the women speak themselves. Sarah’s sections do serve as foundational though: the woods near North Berwick have been full of predators for a very, very long time.
In the corners of Ruth’s house, ghosts drift and appear to the women who need to or want to see them: one is clearly the ghost of Sarah attempting to communicate but unable to speak. There are other ghosts appearing as knocks on a wardrobe door or splashes of red hair in shadows; red hair shared by Sarah, Bernadette, and her mother Mary. Wyld’s descriptions of the shadowed interiors of the house and the vast rocky beaches with the Bass Rock and its lighthouse bring great depth to the novel. The descriptions, at times, are so powerful that you’ll have to remind yourself you’re not on the coast of Scotland walking in the freezing rain. The setting is, of course, perfect for this tale of generational violence and deeply wrought dread. But this is not simply a gothic novel or a catalogue of horrors, there are moments of deep tenderness between parents and children, between women, and even a few good laughs (particularly in the interactions between Viv and a distantly related real estate agent).
The novel ends with a stunning resolution but also a deeply sad explanation of the body in the suitcase. It is an ending both transcendent and horrifically real: this is a book that men need to read; we women, we already know, but we should read it too.