The Bass Rock begins with a young girl finding the body of a woman in a suitcase on a beach in Scotland, a fitting introduction to an accomplished novel that forensically investigates misogyny in all its forms. The story unfolds in three timelines, fit together in a rather elegant nested structure – ABCBA, ABCBA – that reminded me of a piece of music. In the first is Viv in what must be around 2010 (a fashion designer has recently suicided in grief at his mother’s death, which sounds like Alexander McQueen). Viv is nearly 40 and recovering from her father’s death and a bout of mental illness that put her in hospital. She’s been given the task of preparing the old family home in North Berwick, Scotland, for selling. The house stands on a stark stretch of coastline with sublime views out over the Firth of Forth, and the titular Bass Rock, coloured white by the droppings of the thousands of gannets who nest there.
The second timeline follows Ruth Hamilton in the late 1940s, second wife to widower and war vet Peter, and step-mother to Christopher and Michael. She is struggling with her new roles as mother, wife and woman of the same cold, windswept and haunted house. A third part is set in pre-Industrial Scotland, told by Joseph, a young man, whose father rescues a girl accused of witchcraft. At the end of each section is an anonymous act of violence – rape, murder – perpetrated against a woman in the region. The plotlines intersect loosely and naturally, each building to a satisfying climax and neat resolution. Interestingly the information we gain as readers in each section does not often pass between the women in each time, a subtle narrative choice that means only we see the bigger pattern operating across decades and centuries. Novels set in different and interlocking timelines often suffer from ebbs in energy – it’s easy to preference one over another – but Wyld impressively sustains the narrative thrust throughout.
Each of the characters is thoroughly realised and a delight to spend time with, particularly Viv who speaks in the same droll tone as Fleabag, and finds comedy in black situations, and Maggie, a self-described witch who invites herself to stay at the old house with Viv, and is the novel’s political heart.
As it progresses, The Bass Rock becomes a catalogue of violence, a surgical and unsparing depiction of the misogyny that women and girls face. It illustrates a full schema of power and control, from verbal slights and “jokes” (“It was just tickling”, two separate women try to convince themselves. “Fuck, for minute I thought you were going to say I raped you or something,” one perpetrator says in response) to gaslighting and psychological warfare to assault, rape and murder. The novel also demonstrates how boys are inducted into this system, how they are victims of its violence too, and perhaps how we can raise boys differently. “You’re not meant to like it,” says a father of the abuse his sons are receiving at school (likely a victim himself), “You’re meant to transform into a man… I’m not having them … turning into poofs who watercolour and collect seashells.” Two activities that sound perfectly fucking delightful thankyou very much.
Wyld writes in a note that Sherele Moody’s Australian Femicide and Child Death Map is a baseline to her thinking, and one of Maggie’s projects is a map of murdered local women, what the police call “isolated events with no wider threat to the public.” But as Maggie succinctly puts it, all are united by a common situation, “the situation being: she was a woman and he is a man”. The Bass Rock joins Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do as another urgent intervention in the escalating and intensifying crisis of violence against women.
Despite these heavy themes, the novel skips along like a thriller. I particularly enjoyed atmospheric descriptions of the landscape and the matter-of-fact depiction of the supernatural and occult. Symbols and rituals abound, a system of female resistance to male control. Although it has a bleak ending, there are moments of hard-earned triumph. “It’s a woman’s thing, creation,” says one character, and this story demonstrates the power of creation in the face of the men who would destroy and erase.
Gay rating: 3/5 for a queer major character (Viv has dated women in the past) and rumours of other queer activity.