March 2020


‘The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld

By Helen Elliott
Image of ‘The Bass Rock’
The Miles Franklin–winning author’s latest novel expands on her interest in the submission and consequential fury of women amid the impersonal natural world

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 HeightsThe Bass Rock (Vintage) is a bleak and terrible story. And like Brontë’s heroine, Ruth is impossible to forget.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

In This Issue

Image of Kevin Rudd at the Australia 2020 Summit

Descent from the summit

Looking back on Kevin Rudd’s overly ambitious and thinly detailed Australia 2020 Summit

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Behind the coronavirus masks

An infectious diseases physician on facing COVID-19

Photograph by Chase Middleton

The climate interviews

In the face of the looming catastrophes of climate change, how do we talk when we’re lost for words? The author speaks with everyday Australians to see if we can articulate hope and provoke action

Image of cow in photo studio

The milk of human genius

The end of the cow is near as animal-free milk is likely to decimate the traditional dairy industry within the decade, and plant-based meat is set to upend the beef market

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality