‘The village is not what it was. Their relief of having someone to blame. There was a need for it, in these times.’
Every December, I research books being published in the next twelve months and make a list of my most anticipated releases. Looking through publishing catalogues for debut authors is always exciting; it’s even more thrilling when I see a new book from an author I already love. Evie Wyld is one of those authors. She’s published two novels (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and All the Birds, Singing), as well as a graphic novel about sharks and grief — trust me, it works — and her latest novel The Bass Rock is out this month.
Split across three timelines, the narrative swims between Sarah, a woman in the 1700s accused of witchcraft, Ruth recently married after World War II, and Viv who lives in the present day and is mourning the death of her father, Ruth’s stepson. The lives of these three women are at once very different and yet they haunt each other, mirror each other, united by behavioural patterns and the Bass Rock, an uninhabited island just off the coast of Scotland, whose battering by the relentless sea is deemed bracing by local folk.
That same sea washes up the corpses of sharks, and on occasion the bodies of women. As a six-year-old, Viv found a woman in a suitcase: ‘In the memory, which is a child’s memory and unreliable, the eye blinks.’ Ruth, walking home by the beach, has the meat she’s just bought stolen. Sarah cooks a hare she has captured whilst on the run. In Viv’s sister’s fridge, her mince is rotting, and Viv’s mother calls pest control to dispose of the creatures in her attic. There is imagery throughout this novel of honouring and dishonouring bodies; discussions of necessary and unnecessary violence — bodies seen as usable, disposable, and women’s emotions labelled as hysteric or demonic, ‘screaming like birds [are] sewn under [their] skin,’ if they dare to question any of the above.
Ruth and Viv find strength in the relationships they form with women around them: Viv comes across Maggie whilst out shopping late at night, a bold spirit she badly needs; Ruth, outraged that the locals gossip about her exploring the world alone, finds understanding in Betty, her husband’s housekeeper who knows all the town’s secrets. These women armour themselves with hairgrips, by exploring their children’s pockets, and each narrative sequence moves them towards owning their stories: Sarah’s sections are told from the point of view of a man who is watching her, Ruth’s are in third person, and finally Viv’s story is in first person — she is allowed to tell us exactly how she feels.
Red Riding Hood is the fairy tale that tiptoes alongside all of our characters; they are wary of wolves and something they call a Wolfman, and take comfort in the presence of foxes, animals historically viewed as witches’ familiars, or as the form into which a witch transforms.
This book is masterful, ghostly, and also, in places, ever so funny: ‘[his ashes] came in the purple plastic container, which Mum has put in a supermarket Bag for Life, a confusing message.’ If we’re going to do something I like to call ‘Book Maths’, where you say ‘this book, plus this book, equals this book’, I would say The Bass Rock is a fine mixture of Sarah Waters, Ali Smith and occasionally Fleabag. The latter is reflected in Viv’s relationship with her sister: ‘I’m late to meet Katherine, and she doesn’t mention the evening we were supposed to spend together, and if we can get to the end of the month without it being brought up it will be filed in the disappointing sibling box and will only get mentioned if we have a proper falling out.’
Not only was The Bass Rock on my most anticipated books of the year list, it’s now my favourite read of 2020 so far. Rather fittingly, it’s left me spellbound.
Image credit: Castles, Forts, Battles - a website dedicated to the history of the castles, forts and battles that have shaped Britain.
This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. Please share your thoughts and observations below for a chance to win a copy of The Bass Rocky by Evie Wyld.