Book Review for “The Bass Rock” by Evie Wyld.
From the blurb: “Surging out of the sea, the Bass Rock has always borne witness to the lives that pass under its shadow on the Scottish mainland. And across the centuries, the fates of three women are inextricably linked to this place and to each other. … As each woman’s story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that their choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men who seek to control them. But in sisterhood there is also the possibility of survival and a new way of life.”
Let me start this review by saying that this was one of the more lyrically written novels I’ve ever read, where the language was rich, inspired, and atmospheric throughout. This writing style put me in mind of my favorite novel, “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje, which is certainly in this novel’s favor. The difference for me is that Wyld used more luscious descriptions, with cloaked meanings, while Ondaatje uses simpler but cleverly (and yes, poetically) phrased language to evoke emotions from the reader. Now, the difference between these two writing styles has a direct impact on the accessibility of the reader to feel for both the characters and their stories. To my mind, Wyld’s style – though elegant and beautiful – seemed to prevent me from connecting to the story, which is something I never experienced in any Ondaatje novel. Obviously, if Ondaatje is my favorite author, I have no problem with reading novels written in highly expressive prose. However, style should never usurp approachability, and there was a distance in Wyld’s book that felt like she was keeping her readers at arm’s length.
This is one reason why I believe this was not an easy book to read. Furthermore, the three main female protagonists here, are all unique, both in their situations and in their personalities. According to the blurb, they are “Sarah, accused of being a witch, is fleeing for her life. Ruth, in the aftermath of the Second World War, is navigating a new marriage and the strange waters of the local community. Six decades later, Viv, still mourning the death of her father, is cataloguing Ruth’s belongings in the now-empty house.” As different as these three seem from that synopsis, at the same time there were many similarities about them. All three of them have this darkness inside them, a weightiness that on the one hand, makes them crave human connections, but on the other hand, prevents them from opening themselves up to real emotional intimacy. Mind you, some of the things that happened to them in their pasts would explain a good deal of their relationship problems. Even so, I found it hard to believe how any of these women could get to the stage where they could love someone enough, and thereby allow themselves to be loved enough to marry them. Yes, there were some twinkling bits where Wyld gave them touches of joy and pleasure in their lives and in themselves, but they were far too fleetingly short.
Another reason that I found this a difficult read, despite the beauty of the prose, was how confused I was about the timelines as well as the familial connections (or lack thereof), of the three protagonists. One easy fix for the former would have been to just put a year at the beginning of each section. Yes, I know, not all authors like to give away too much information with chapter or section headings, and many times we overlook these, but in this instance, it would have been very helpful to me. This is also partially due to the fact that despite understanding the differences of these personalities, the narratives for all three of them felt a bit too much the same. Without clearly distinct voices, these women seemed to blend together, in my mind, and I had to try and figure out which of the three each section was talking about. As for the latter problem, I’m not sure what Wyld could have done short of giving us some family tree, which I’m certain would not have been her style at all. Strangely enough, the minor characters – mostly the men – weren’t all that confusing for me at all; go figure.
I realize that all this sounds like a very damning assessment of this novel, but I have to stress that I wouldn’t have finished reading this book if I felt it didn’t have any redeeming features. Wyld is an extremely talented writer with a unique style that is both atmospheric and luscious. I’m guessing that many of the readers of this novel, especially her fans, will be very effusive with their praise. I’m also sure that much of my misunderstandings here might be attributed to my own misreading of this novel. For example, someone mentioned a serial killer sub-plot here, but I didn’t get that at all. I think that for me, I have to give this novel three out of five stars, but I can still recommend it to those who are particularly fond of Wyld’s type of striking prose, which I would say is nothing short of inspired. I just hope they can read it with better understanding than what I was able to gather.
Pantheon (a division of Random House) will release “The Bass Rock” by Evie Wyld on September 1, 2020. This book is/will be available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.