Quotidian horrors: The Bass Rock

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Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock was probably my most eagerly anticipated title of the last couple of years. Her second novel, All The Birds, Singingwith its insanely clever backwards structure, was one of my top ten books of the decade; I put The Bass Rock on my4.5 star challenge before it even had a cover because I was so sure I was going to love it. So, perhaps it could never have lived up to such high expectations, and yet I do feel a little disappointed. Before I go any further, I should say that The Bass Rock is absolutely a good novel, and it was utterly cheated by not making the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist (especially given the dubious quality of many of the titles that were longlisted). Wyld is an incredible writer, and, line-by-line, there is nothing about this book that is a letdown. However, it’s made me reflect on what I want from a novel that is really going to blow me away: and I guess I’ve concluded that I put a higher premium on originality – both in terms of structure, and content – than perhaps other readers do. Quite apart from the brilliant structural tricks that Wyld played in All The Birds, I loved its unusual setting – the protagonist, a woman called Jake, spends a good chunk of the novel as a sheep-shearer in the Australian outback – and the way that Wyld experiments with horror tropes. Nevertheless, The Bass Rock totally succeeds in everything that it sets out to do, and it is a bit unfair to be cross at it simply because it isn’t All The Birds.

The Bass Rock, like its predecessor, also takes a slightly experimental structure; the vast majority of the novel is divided between three narratives, linked by place rather than by person. Viv, in the present day, is house-sitting in the shadow of the Bass Rock, a looming presence off the Scottish coast. Ruth, in the 1950s, has just moved into the same house, navigating her relationship with Peter and his two teenage sons, who are having a turbulent time at boarding school. Finally, in the early 1700s, a woman flees for her life into the surrounding woods after she is accused of being a witch. Usually, novels that use dual or triple narratives tie them together tightly – a common trope (much disliked by me) is the person researching their family history – but, although certain links emerge, Wyld is brave enough to let these three strands stand in parallel. While I thought this aspect of the novel worked, I still found that I was constantly wishing to return to Ruth’s story, which felt by far the strongest of the three. I hate to say it, but aimless millennial narrators like Viv are starting to irritate me; she’s an old millennial, but she still fits into a groove that I feel has become increasingly worn. Meanwhile, the early modern witch-hunt felt flat and familiar.

It’s when we’re spending time with Ruth that the book really shines; the way that it traces the quotidian trauma of male violence, and how easily it can become an everyday experience. While all three stories are, of course, concerned with patriarchal power, its threads are seen most clearly in the mundane horrors of Ruth’s world; the predatory local vicar, the boys’ abusive boarding school, how Ruth’s own husband quietly oppresses her, the silencings and smothering of other girls and women. Somehow, Wyld manages to nail not just how violence works but how we come to take it for granted. She doesn’t allow us to judge these characters from outside (of course he’s an abuser; of course that’s rape) but forces us to enter into their heads and understand how difficult it is for them to see things clearly. Her take on this theme is one of the best that I’ve ever seen in fiction, and that alone makes The Bass Rock worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

17 thoughts on “Quotidian horrors: The Bass Rock

  1. I have realised lately that structure plays a huge part in how much I rate a book – and it’s something that doesn’t get talked about an awful lot in comparison to prose or characterisation. All of my favourite novels of the last few years have had a structure that is unusual and works in terms of adding to how the story is told or understood. I don’t know why I didn’t get to All the Birds Singing before, but it’s on my radar now!

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    • Yes! Structure is so important. I’ve been thinking about this a lot while working on my own novel. It also affects everything else – e.g. in the order in which the characters are introduced, and whose eyes you see them through, can do a lot to set reader sympathy.

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  2. I recently read The Bass Rock and really loved it! Like you I found myself drawn to Ruth’s perspective the most, though I also enjoyed Viv’s perspective. I find that the aimless millennial narrator trope is hit and miss for me–I didn’t much like it in novels like Topics of Conversation, but in this case I thought Viv was interesting enough to be sympathetic.

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    • I think, for me, this suffered from being the best of a long line of #MeToo novels, whereas if I’d read it earlier in the line it would probably have worked even better.

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  3. Yeah, I think you’re right about Ruth’s strand being the strongest. (Can we not have some millennial women who AREN’T single, self-loathing, apparently socially isolated alcoholics chasing bad sex with disappointing men? Like, yes, it happens, but… a lot of other things comprise the millennial female experience.)

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    • Exactly! Viv has clearly experienced some pretty severe mental health problems so this isn’t a criticism of her, but I’d love to see more millennial (or any age!) female protagonists doing interesting things in interesting fields, from microbiology to sheep-shearing…

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      • I think this is why Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border feels so revolutionary to me. Her protagonist must be in her mid-thirties and is a wildlife biologist doing interesting, important things while ALSO having demons! It can be done!

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  4. Fascinating review, Laura. Personally, I enjoy straightforward narratives, but when an author can pull off an unusual structure I find that I can take a liking to it (e.g. Weather, which took me by surprise). Maybe it’s also my changing tastes as a reader. You’ve definitely piqued my interest with All the Birds Singing; I’ll be sure to check it out!

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  5. I made myself wait until I’d finished the book and written my Shiny New Books review before I could read yours properly and comment. To my surprise, I liked this more than you — a rare 5* rating from me! And that’s despite not being all that enamoured with her previous novel (I haven’t read her other two books). I loved the way the story lines ebbed and flowed. While I agree the 18th-c. strand was the least essential, I saw it as voicing the male ‘she was asking for it’ viewpoint. What a shame this didn’t make the Women’s Prize list!

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    • This definitely deserved to make the Women’s Prize longlist. I imagine it felt fresher when she started writing it if that makes sense… I feel like too many books overtook it which made it feel less original to me.

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