The Bass Rock looms from the ocean 3 kilometres off Scotland’s East Lothian coast, glistening white with thousands of years of bird droppings and home to the world’s largest gannet population. Ruth, living in a big – too big – coastal house, doesn’t much like the Bass Rock. The other islands in the sea charm her but this misshapen volcanic plug looks to her “like the head of a dreadfully handicapped child”.
Yet often she is “unable to look away”.
There are three central women in Evie Wyld’s third novel. Ruth’s story is set just after World War Two. Newly married to a widower with two small boys, Ruth comes to live with them. Raw with grief from the death of her beloved brother in the war, she looks for a sign from him in every flutter of the world. Ruth has money, status, education and a loving sister, but no agency as herself; she might as well be one of the Bass gannets. Her husband is often away in London and she relies on Betty, her housekeeper, for most things. Ruth is dutiful, responds to other people, avoids confrontations, behaves nicely. Sometimes she needs a drink at breakfast.
Viv, Ruth’s granddaughter, is also keen to have a drink at breakfast. Her story is contemporary. After Ruth’s death she is staying at the big house sorting its contents before it is sold. As Viv begins to catalogue Ruth’s life, she begins to catalogue her own.
There is another woman connected to the house, and both Ruth and Viv catch glimpses of her out of the corner of their eye. In the 1700s a woman came to the coast with a man and his young son after she was accused of being a witch by their village. Her ambiguous presence haunts the house, although neither Ruth nor Viv believe in ghosts. Or witches. When Viv meets Maggie, who somehow comes to stay, she asks Maggie what she does. Maggie says she is a witch. Viv’s response? This is “the single most irritating thing I’ve ever heard anyone say”.
Wyld, an Anglo-Australian writer, won significant prizes for her first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice. Her second, All the Birds, Singing won the Miles Franklin in 2014. These questioning, unsettled novels distilled dread and love in language and structure usually associated with poetry. This third novel is wider in scope and the technical achievement is impressive. All the interests and obsessions that distinguish Wyld are expanded and explored: the violence of men, the meek submission and consequential fury of women set within and against the impersonal natural world. Her fiction is restless, always aiming to understand what it’s trying to see.
Emily Brontë, in her sole novel, fused landscape with the yearnings and lawlessness of the human heart. Like Wuthering Heights, The Bass Rock (Vintage) is a bleak and terrible story. And like Brontë’s heroine, Ruth is impossible to forget.
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