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The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, review: a menacing portrait of violence against women

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Foreboding: Scotland's Bass Rock
Foreboding: Scotland's Bass Rock

The Bass Rock begins with a girl’s body in a suitcase on a beach. Still to come on the violence-against-women front are further murders, abuse, rape, gaslighting and more than one forced committal to an asylum. This centuries-spanning, low-key slice of gothic is the third novel by 39-year-old Evie Wyld, a rising star of British fiction.

In the present day is Viv, grieving the death of her father while cataloguing the contents of his stepmother Ruth’s house in Scotland. Then there’s Ruth herself, shortly after the Second World War, married to a widower with two sons, who struggles to adjust to life in the big house (as well as to the weirdos in the village).

Finally, in the 1700s, there’s Sarah, accused of being a witch and on the run with a family who probably don’t have her best interests at heart. The novel boomerangs through time from Viv to Ruth to Sarah and back again, each section book-ended by out-of-time accounts of horrible things happening to women. As Viv’s witchy friend Maggie says, “What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once?”

It’s a long book, and Wyld’s slow, controlled build-up of dread is excellent. (The Sarah narrative feels unnecessary, giving us the creeps but little else.) Blackness and rot swim through the novel, from a shark decomposing on the beach to mushrooms smelling of rotting flesh. Looming over all time frames is the Bass Rock, “misshapen, like the head of a dreadfully handicapped child”.

Most powerful of all is Wyld’s evocation of a hairs-on-the-neck sense of foreboding when women interact with volatile men. These scenes are often framed by talk of foxes and wolves, like the troubling picnic Ruth is forced to host in which men wear fox ears, hunt down the women and tickle them; or Viv’s own tickling attack from her wolf-tattooed boyfriend. In a book that’s filled with menace, it’s these chaotic moments, caught between comedy and horror, that linger.

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