I love Evie Wyld (and have reviewed her other books here and here) so 'Bass Rock' jumped onto the library list as soon as I read about it. It follows several different story lines, and while I liked all the individual strands of the story, the more historical one seemed to lack a connection to the rest of the story. There were also several passages, apparently unconnected, describing horrible violence against unnamed women that simply left me disturbed and horrified. The main thread of the story in the 1950s follows Ruth, a newly married and step-mothering young woman, moved to Scotland to a big old house to care for her husband's two boys. The main other strand turns out to be her granddaughter Viv, coming to 'sort out' the house as it is being sold. The story of Sarah, the suspected witch, and the family who rescue her seems entirely separate. They trek aimlessly through the woods away from their village, until the group gradually dwindles, and the young boy, once fascinated, begins to see her as a threat. It is a sad book, the women in it lead small lives, lacking in connection and love. Both their relationships and society in general seems to conspire to keep it that way.
Here Ruth is at her sister's wedding:
"Ludwig performed a small dance at the base of the fence, his ear turning themselves pink-way out. The clamour rose again and Ruth looked at the wagtail. 'Hello, Anthony,' she said to it, and then wondered what had gone wrong to produce that kind of nonsense, that her dead brother had come to the wedding reception disguised as a small bird. Aunt Josephine had been stood not too far away, and had given her a look of great compassion, Ruth had thought, but later it turned out that Aunt Josephine had reported it back to her mother and, combined with her behaviour later that year, it had been used to install Ruth for a fortnight in a sanatorium in Deal, which had been humiliating and alarming, and where she had learned a thing or two about pretending." (p.25)
This one I liked because of the memory it evoked, and then I thought, surely the author is too young to remember vinyl covered chairs, they were a 1970s thing, so she must have read or heard it somewhere, but the detail is lovely:
"The kitchen table remains, its yellow-vinyl-cushioned chairs, a split on each seat that pinched the backs of your thighs if you sat on them with shorts. Funny, that memory - so strong and yet I could count on one hand the number of warm days we spent at North Berwick. The shorts would have been worn along with a thick scratchy fisherman's jumper and hat. The estate agent requests the broken seats are kept hidden underneath the table." (p.54-5)
I like Viv because of how much she lives in the past. She spends a lot of time thinking over her childhood, not in a nostalgic way, but just dwelling on it, and often feeling herself to be the same:
"I turn the radio off. It is near to midnight. I imagine a wolf man running alongside the car. I used to do this on the drive to Scotland when I was a kid. When you look into the scrub at the side of the road, when you peer into the dark, it's easy to see them, waiting to race you, willing you to break down. London is warm and comfortable, street lights and rain-wet pavements. Everyone is sleeping, the wolves have turned into foxes." (p.640
And back to Ruth, who sinks into alcohol with the isolation (both physical and metaphorical), and the gaslighting by her husband after she tells him she has seen him with his mistress. Just love the last sentence here:
"Ruth pushed herself back from the desk, hands in lap. She rose from the seat and looked out of the window at the water, the same gunmetal grey as the dead shark. The whole landscape was a giant monster, the sky indifferent, the golf course a wasteland. She knelt and then lay on the floor, folded her hands over her chest. The ceiling dipped in and out of focus. She felt her heart rapping on the wood off the floor, through the back of her ribcage. One, two, three, four, five, six. It seemed that, instead of calming her, her heart's thud was becoming stronger and louder, knocking a tide of blood into her head, banging against the drums of her ears, and she closed her eyes and felt the floor slope under her. Her body danced with prickles." (p.209-10)
Not a 'lovely' book but very emotionally intense and engaging. Nicely drawn minor characters too, like Betty the housekeeper and Maggie, a homeless woman who befriends Viv. It's all about the women, so what's not to like.
Stay safe. Be kind. Finish that baby blanket.