(Warning for content on violence, murder, abuse, and sexism.)
Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock was hard to read and is even harder to write about. The book tells the stories of three women, all from different time periods, who all have some sort of connection to the town by the Bass Rock. Their stories place all of them up against men who, in some way or another, hurt them. The book comes in parts, each beginning with the story of an abused, dead, or dying woman. It’s this topic that makes it difficult to read, simultaneously disheartening and terrifying.
However, it can feel hopeful at points as well. The women band together to help each other survive. In the first chapter of the book, the character Vivian meets Maggie, who keeps a record of the locations where women are killed in her area. She prevents Vivian from walking into an ambush a random thief – or something else – has set up by her car. We immediately see the potential danger our characters are in, but also that there is some hope as well in the form of alliance.
These sorts of alliances continue throughout the book. Ruth, a lonely woman who moves to Scotland with her new husband, has Bettie. Bettie’s sister is trapped in an asylum, and Ruth agrees to take in the sister’s daughter, Bernadette, to help out the family. Ruth and Betty keep each other company. Ruth’s stepchildren, Christopher and Michael, suffer abuse at their boarding school, but they have Bernadette, each other, and other students to spend time with, to help them recover. Vivian helps her sister Katherine through a breakup with her somewhat dangerous husband and both sisters have Maggie to assist them as well.
The final character, Sarah, also has support in the form of a family of mostly men that help her flee from people intending to burn her for potentially being a witch, but the son murders her in a jealous rage when he finds her sleeping with his father. So what’s going on here? Sarah’s situation feels a bit like a foil to Bernadette’s. Bernadette also shares the company of two men, both of which are eventually in love with her, but they all support each other rather than turning to violence. The most significant difference between the two seems to be time, since the novel makes a show of including women from three different time periods. Sarah’s life occurs sometime before the other two’s, Ruth lives right after World War II, and Vivian is more modern. It seems that the women’s situations improve with time – Sarah ends up dead, Ruth a lonely alcoholic, but Bernadette, as far as we can tell, is fine. Perhaps for the purpose of showing that time doesn’t heal all, Vivian and Katherine suffer some, but they end the book with a hopeful future ahead, though perhaps not one without conflict.
In Vivian’s section, we learn that Christopher and Michael suffer abuse at boarding school, but a later one of Ruth’s chapters has their town reverend come and try to cover up the abuse by portraying Christopher as violent and Michael as a liar. When Ruth sees through the reverend’s lies and worries about them, her husband claims that suffering through this is good for them, that it will help them grow up, implying that he also went through something similar. Here we glimpse a cycle of abuse, passed down between generations of boys, which may explain why this abuse is so normalized when it is turned on women. Ruth’s husband even implies that he thinks Ruth is inferior because she has never suffered abuse. Of course, suffering is no excuse for hurting others and definitely does not have to result in passing on pain, as we see with Christopher and Michael. It’s less of an explanation for why the characters act as they do and seems more to show how sexism and gender norms can harm men as well.
Does the book have any answers besides that having allies might help? Not particularly. There’s a sense of hope, for sure, but the women are still in potential danger and sexism prevails. I suppose it’s hard to come up with an answer to a problem that doesn’t seem to be budging in real life either. Does talking about it help, however? Reading about it frightening, but do I feel any better? It’s hard to say. It makes me feel more desperately that something needs to be done to stop people from getting hurt, but I still feel paranoid, overwhelmed, and occasionally a bit hopeless despite the slightly hopeful ending. I suppose it’s better to be aware and avoid risk than to not know, however, and learning through fiction feels more comfortable to me than reading about murdered women somewhere else because books are generally comforting to me. The book’s description also says it’s about resilience, and perhaps watching others struggle and find ways to win in a world that hates them brings strength and hope to its readers. I can’t really know other reasons because they are not mine, and I cannot pretend to speak for others when I’ve lived my entire life without being harmed in these ways. I can’t say whether reading about it is helpful or not because it’ll be different for everyone.
The Bass Rock isn’t perfect, but it’s a thoughtful, well-written look at a timely issue that doesn’t seem to be going away. However, it doesn’t address intersectionality too much, which is also incredibly important, so I would not recommend reading it and deciding that you’ve done your part for feminism, because it’s not going to tell you everything you need to know, but it’s still an interesting book that worth reading.