Criss-crossing in Time like Ghosts

Evie Wyld, The Bass Rock

Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781911214397

reviewed by Jacinta Mulders

It is unfortunate the way that good writing — and particularly writing by women — can be prodded into banal book jackets. The promise offered, for something sweepingly emotional in which the reader will become helplessly involved, pigeonholes writers and readers in a way that undercuts the idiosyncrasies of individual authors' books, often along gendered lines. Looking at the titles of Evie Wyld's books, it would be easy to presume that they are gentler and less serious than they are. The covers of the Vintage Australia editions do nothing to dissuade this assumption: on those of her first two novels, solitary figures stand with faces obscured in moody outdoor settings, while on that of the third, a dramatic wave crashes against a sea rock.

These assumptions about gently romantic prose would belie the emotional heft, literary complexity and punchy drama of her novels. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009), All the Birds, Singing (2013) and her latest novel, The Bass Rock, expose ambitious temporalities, rich aesthetics and sprawling geographies. And while these novels are, in some respects, typical of Australian fiction — with the focus on landscape and a sense of largesse in dealing with time and territory that is reminiscent of Gerald Murnane, Richard Flanagan or Michelle de Kretser — Britishness, like a forgotten relative, creeps in. Her work has a domesticity to it and an interest in the gothic that feel as though they come from this other literary lineage. In the course of her oeuvre, sheep farming in Boodarie sits as comfortably as an afternoon tea taken in a pavilion near the sea with a silver teapot and a finger of shortbread. These deep contrasts in cultural experience spotlight the similarities between the inner lives of characters and people. She shows us how emotions like joy, insecurity, terror and pain are experienced by all — irrespective of place, time and socioeconomic markers like wealth, class, and education.

The Bass Rock has a timescale that spans centuries. While populated with the experiences of many women, it is spearheaded by three main protagonists, whose interconnected stories are narrated in episodic form. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Ruth moves to the coast of East Scotland to live with her new husband and his two sons. She is charged with the maintenance of a huge house — a groaning, time-steeped thing — which has views out onto a number of the geographic formations of the area: a large mountain with whale bones on top called 'the Law' as well as the Bass Rock, a big black and white fist of volcanic rock standing silently out in the sea. In a more contemporary time period (we are made to understand it is the first few decades of the 2000s), Viv, Ruth's granddaughter, goes to stay in the same house. She has been given the job of cataloguing Ruth's belongings as a kind of lifeline — Viv is being overpaid by her family to keep herself occupied. Deeply affected by the death of her father, Viv's life in London is haphazard, and there are hints to time spent in hospital the year before.

The third story is set in the early 1700s, and is much more sparsely narrated. While Ruth's and Viv's stories take up fulsome chapters, this third thread takes place in short spans of pages, conveying a story which is dense, moody and dark. Sarah, a young girl, has been accused of witchcraft, and, under the protection of a priest and his son, she flees into the forest. The stories of Ruth, Viv and Sarah interweave, looping and circling each other. Rather than going forward in a sequence of chapters, the narrative threads are bunched into sections that are named after the features of the landscape: islands off the coast or other keynotes of the prose ('Fidra', 'The Lamb', 'The Sisters'). This act of naming has a poetic resonance: personhood and landscape become blurred. Each section is rounded out by an account of a woman in history — these women are not named, and one feels the choice is deliberate — who has been murdered or is being murdered by a man or group of men. These passages are chilling and bloody, and the thematic connection is clear. The psychological and bodily violence suffered by these anonymous women is a sort of beating, brutal through-line of the book, both harrowing and urgent. The repetition of the same crime to different women across time emphasises Wyld's political impetus: to showcase the murder and abuse of women by men as something systemic, recurring and real.

Wyld tethers her characters through time in a way which is thematic, sensory, and grounded in the fact that all women at one point occupied or will occupy the same body of land: the house and the arena of coastline surrounding it. In this space, Sarah, Ruth and Viv move, criss-crossing in time like ghosts. For Viv it is a place to retreat and reflect. Ruth, instead, feels ill-fitted as its mistress. She uses its rooms and windows as vantage points to stare out at the sky and sea. In the house, the ghost of Sarah hovers just out of eyesight. In a way reminiscent of Angela Carter or, more recently, Sophie Mackintosh, the house becomes the symbolic repository of all these women's feelings and histories. Within the house, the past stacks up and affects the present. Impressions, legacies and past pains pool in the moment to be reflected on, reckoned with, or ignored.

Although The Bass Rock is rooted in deep emotional rhythms and recurring symbolic motifs, Wyld's work is convincing because of her crystalline ability to conjure surface details. The realisation of worlds is perfected and often participates in the intense emotional tenor of the book. Her prose is just as fluent with post war London as it is with moon cups and buffalo mozzarella. With Ruth, we get all the accoutrements of 20th-century British life: stewing steak, meat pudding, bathers with floral-capped heads, Victoria sponge, a flat in Kensington. Sarah's story, instead, operates within the gloom and desperation of the deep past: in it, one can feel the hot breath of death and violence, the superstition of the age, black mud and disease. There is a roasted hare and wet forest leaves. In more recent times, it's easy to feel close to Viv for how barely she is keeping it together.

This thread of the book is glut with wine, frozen and tinned seafood, passive aggression and an uneasy crawling towards some type of deliverance. This is the thread that most explicitly, too, contends with the theme of violence against women. This is, in part, because Viv and her sister have the benefit of 60 more years in the development of feminism: their livelihoods are not dependent on marriage or on the tempers of men to the same extent as their forbears. It is also in part because of the presence of Maggie, a homeless woman-cum-oracle Viv befriends who, about mid-way through the book, takes time to explain to Viv, in no uncertain terms, the full history of murdered women: 'It's about forgetting, it's about a vast and infinite amnesia. We forget the torture, the rape, the tit rippers, the scold's bridles [. . .] The death of our unborn children, the burning and tearing apart of our vulvas.’

And the violences, really, are canvassed with longitude and intensity. When we are introduced to Sarah she is being held by a gang of men in a pig shed, 'her dress nothing more than a rag about her armpits.' When she is saved by the priest and his son, one of the men in the gang stands by forlornly and states: 'She is ours to burn.’ The implication is that the gang have been denied their right to kill her. The insults against Ruth are less public but still pernicious. They come from her husband but also from her community, which is commandeered by a lying, entitled priest. One of the scenes of the most vivid terror occurs when Ruth is forced to participate in a game in which the men in the village hunt out the women, who are disguised in costume, and then 'tickle' them until the woman identifies herself. The practicalities of this custom are revealed as violating and savage: Ruth is sat on by a man she barely knows, his fingers digging all over her torso, her breasts and bare legs until she can gasp enough air to scream her name. Here, Wyld shows us that neither Ruth's class nor her status as a married woman offer protection. For Viv and her sister, living in contemporary London, there are modern iterations of controlling behaviour which feel, unfortunately, relatable: Viv is pinned down after sex and sent threatening messages when she refuses to oblige a man, while her sister Katherine is pursued by an ex at Blackfriars station. In another part, Maggie says:

What if all the women that have been killed by men throughout history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the places they were killed?

Part of The Bass Rock’s project is to populate a landscape with the bodies and stories of these anonymous, brutalised women. This cacophony of silenced voices shows us that life is not just something that, as in a book, only happens to three protagonists. Violence against women doesn't cease to exist just because it is unseen or because the victims are not widely known. Wyld's choices here are entreaties to look seriously at violence against women as a phenomenon that is not couched in the far-off past, since we are part of its continuous history.

The effect is sobering, but it would be wrong to suggest that The Bass Rock is a predominantly didactic work, as it is suffused with human tenderness and melancholy. Consciousness is delicately coupled with weather and geographic and cultural panorama to create an effect that is ethereal and poetic:

There was lightning but for the moment no thunder, the rain fell harder, making the rose heads in the garden shudder. She could see it out on the Bass Rock, the rain coming down like a lace veil that made the edges blend into the clouds.

There are no obvious solutions in Wyld's work. The reasons for healing are mysterious and not explicitly stated. There is the suggestion that time has restorative properties, as have relationships founded on loyalty and basic, human kindnesses. But the resolution, really, isn't where Wyld's books really shine. It is in the clagginess and murkiness of deeply felt emotion. It is in the core fact of how we are unknown to ourselves, let alone to other people. It is in how our lives are shaped by the deep and silent unknown primal, emotional, societal and historical forces and how we are helpless, ultimately, in their hold.
Jacinta Mulders is an Australian writer and graduate of the University of East Anglia’s fiction MA programme. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Seizure, The Lifted Brow, and other publications in the UK, Ireland and Australia. She is working on her first collection of short stories.