The Bass Rock

Evie Wyld

The Bass Rock
Penguin Books Australia
22 April 2021

The Bass Rock

Evie Wyld

Winner of the 2021 Stella Prize

In 1720s Scotland, a priest and his son get lost in the forest, transporting a witch to the coast to stop her from being killed by the village.

In the sad, slow years after the Second World War, Ruth finds herself the replacement wife to a recent widower and stepmother to his two young boys, installed in a huge house by the sea and haunted by those who have come before.

Fifty years later, Viv is cataloguing the valuables left in her dead grandmother’s seaside home, when she uncovers long-held secrets of the great house.

Three women, hundreds of years apart, slip into each other’s lives in a novel of darkness, violence and madness.


Evie Wyld returns with another novel in which narratives converge over historical time, as they did in her Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning All the Birds, Singing. In The Bass Rock, Wyld constructs three stories linked by family ties, their setting in coastal Scotland (the titular Bass Rock), and by generations of trauma and unexplained unravelling. It is clear from the start that something terrible has happened, and the novel moves back and forward to reveal it.

The root of the story is Wyld’s slow revelation of an episode of misogynistic violence in 1720s Scotland, in which two men defy their village to rescue a young woman who has been raped and beaten, and whom the young men of the town want to burn for her alleged witchcraft. This thread of the story is told in fragments, but the short sections vividly show characters using irrational hatred to justify a revolting desire for violence. The story also reveals the way difference is used to vilify women, hinting at mental illness and the souring popular opinion of the victim’s mother’s trade as an apothecary.

The first story alternates with that of Ruth, recently married to the widowed Mr Hamilton, trying to mother his two sons and stave off the uncanny presence she notices when left alone in their new home on the Scottish coast. Ruth struggles to navigate loneliness and social upheaval in the aftermath of World War II, and resists her new husband’s aloofness by inviting her housekeeper’s niece to stay, despite the stigma of mental illness hanging over her.

A third narrative introduces Viv, in an unspecified present. Viv is not really recovering from a breakdown of her own and holed up inside the house of Mrs Hamilton, her mother’s benefactor, on the Scottish coast, still dominated by the Bass Rock.

This novel blends the uncanny and the violent with an intense domestic claustrophobia, where disappointment and isolation mingle with careless abuse of women. It is an unsettling and compelling book which might particularly appeal to readers of historical and contemporary literary fiction.

George Delaney works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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