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Kristian Kerr Reviews: The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

PART OF THE Generations ISSUE

‘Here is a story of survival and violence, of hounding and pursuit, of living outside the margins.’

The award-winning and Granta Best Young British Novelist (2013) Evie Wyld has set her latest novel, The Bass Rock, in East Lothian, in the shadow of the coastal landmark. Kristian Kerr finds it an ambitious, thought-provoking novel with memorable, resonant characters.

 

The Bass Rock
By Evie Wyld
Published by Jonathan Cape

 

The Bass Rock, a guano-frosted carbuncle-landmark off Scotland’s East Coast, plays the same part in Evie Wyld’s new, third novel as the titular lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It lies offshore, a background presence, a place that looms occasionally into characters’ consciousness; busy with the smaller dramas of human affairs, however, no one journeys there. It stands sentinel in the sea, a gargantuan witness to the lives playing out on the windswept East Lothian littoral. Onto this landscape of beach, sea, sky, and wood, Wyld weaves a fabric of stories, layering century-spanning timeframes over the geography and pulling connecting threads into the light. Three women’s lives unfold here on the edge of the land, and this novel captures how elemental forces act both on them and within them.

There is a distinctly Woolfian vibe to The Bass Rock. While this is no summer holiday, the novel’s two leading women find themselves mistresses of the ‘big house’, charged with domestic responsibility for all under its roof. They also knock around in it – between the public and private zones of bedroom, kitchen, attic or study – questioning themselves and their authority, and Wyld’s depiction of the difficulty of balancing responsibility for others with personal anxiety is spot on. Her characters’ internal monologues are mordant with self-criticism and a wry, low-key observation of others’ peccadillos.

In the present, Viviane has been given the half-job of minding the house while it is on the market. She is mourning her father’s death and recovering from a breakdown, and the gig has come her way as much to help her out as it is to keep the house lived in. Her antagonist in this is the sprightly Deborah, an estate agent who prescribes a litany of ersatz remedies to present the house to appeal to the modern buyer. Damp is the enemy; precious-but-hideous family heirlooms should be hidden from sight, as should the traces of genteel alcoholism; patchy mobile signal may, in the end, prove the house’s Achilles heel. Viviane rebels against this kind of sterility by inviting local free spirit and self-identifying witch Maggie to avail herself of the house’s facilities as and when she needs to. Deborah would certainly not approve. Significantly, Viviane also repopulates the house with memories of her childhood visits. These are often incomplete, or foreclosed by grief for her father – she cannot quite, for example, bring herself to sleep in his childhood bed under the eaves – but they are the fragile threads that connect the two main narratives of the novel.

Ruth arrives in the house in the 1950s, newly married to a widower and consequently stepmother to Michael and Christopher, his pre-adolescent sons. Grief is here too, for a wife and mother who died of a respiratory illness and a brother killed in WW2, and Ruth is wading through it, under the burden of expectation that she make the best of things for both the boys and her husband Peter. One of the joys of Wyld’s depiction of both Ruth and Vivian is how she depicts them experiencing alienation and connection as equally powerful modes. Reading this novel, you feel that you know these characters minds intimately, but that you also cannot know them at all.

Ruth’s support comes from Betty, the housekeeper whose bland, gelatinous food serves initially as a rallying joke for Peter and Ruth. Betty guides Ruth through the rhythms of life in the house and the community and they find an accommodation that lasts for the rest of their lives. In both narratives the house becomes a shelter for women of different backgrounds whose lives have not conformed to a traditional narrative of domestic happiness, though the novel insistently questions whether that narrative exists at all. Individual stories are gnarled and family trees don’t grow straight.

The interlocking narratives of Viviane and Ruth, whom she knows grandly and distantly as ‘Mrs Hamilton’, would suffice to make a compelling family saga, told in a spare, modernist mode. Wyld goes a step further, however, perhaps inspired by the timeless presence of the Bass, perhaps by the story of the late-sixteenth-century North Berwick witch trials, and weaves in the story of Sarah, persecuted as a witch and on the run in the woods with a family of religious dissenters.

Here is a story of survival and violence, of hounding and pursuit, of living outside the margins. It connects powerfully with Maggie’s story, with earthy and unfettered sexuality at once enticing and empowered, feared or disapproved of. This thread of the story places a premium on instinct: sensing wolves, foxes and existential dread are survival tools here, when closer to the present they are dismissed as hysteria, the preserve of women and children. In its depiction of domestic horrors and succours through the ages, this novel quietly advocates for the prizing of instinct and intuition amidst the inescapable violence of human interactions. Bluff fresh-air, cold-water school masculinity certainly does not fare well, though this beautifully constructed novel offers no easy resolutions.

 

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99.

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