When I was a kid we spent every family summer holiday in a village on South East Scotland’s Firth of Forth estuary. From the beach on a clear day you could make out a deserted island in the distance, poking from the North Sea like a giant’s head. We used to take bets on how long it would take to swim around it, but mostly I remember how eerie I found it.
That island is The Bass Rock, the name and backdrop of Evie Wyld’s unsettling new novel about toxic masculinity set in the windswept seaside town of North Berwick. Like Wyld’s previous, award-winning books – After The Fire, A Still Small Voice (set in the Australian wilderness) and All The Birds Singing (a bleak coastal island) – the natural setting inhabits the pages, the ‘silent black rock’ looming from the waves, a constant and unblinking witness to the stories of three women: Vivianne, Ruth and Sarah.
The action is set in three different time frames. In the present day, Vivianne is cleaning out the big old family house so her uncle can sell it. Approaching forty, rudderless and raw from an emotional breakdown – ostensibly triggered by the death of her father – she is trying to ‘participate’ in her life again after spending ‘seven days in a room with no edges, with a sign on the door that said, ‘No Cutlery Whatsoever, Not even teaspoons!’’
We jump back to the same old house but in the 1950s, where Ruth is navigating marriage to her new husband Peter in the shadow of his widow Elspeth, blaming herself for a recent miscarriage – ‘next time she would know to be softer with herself’ – and drinking too much. We leap back again to the 1700s to follow Sarah, a teenage girl accused of being a witch, a less fleshed-out story that serves as a historical echo of the other two.
The #MeToo movement happened when Wyld was halfway through writing the book and she says it helped shape its direction. Male violence against women punctuates virtually every chapter, from shocking bodily violence – we open with Viviane as a child discovering a murdered woman stuffed into a suitcase on the beach – to Peter’s subtle gaslighting of his wife: “I was afraid for you, you were becoming hysterical.”
The supernatural also hovers in the margins. Ruth thinks she sees the figure of a young woman and her stepsons talk of ‘wolfmen’ at the door. But the real thing to fear is more tangible than a creepy island or a face in the window: “What if all the women who had been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once?” asks Viv’s friend Maggie.
The Bass Rock probably won’t make comfortable reading if you’re a man, but if the subject matter sounds like a heavy relay of bloke-bashing, Wyld’s gossamer-light prose, beautiful even in its depiction of murder, brings nuance and complexity to the story. There are good men in the novel too – Viv’s Uncle Christopher is sent to an abusive ‘toughen them up’ boarding school but emerges whole and kind – and ultimately Wyld’s skilfully woven narrative will keep you turning towards a final, unexpected twist.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (Cape, £16.99), buy it here.