This is a book where the reader needs to work. By that, I mean not everything is delivered to you and neatly tied up in a bow. You must concentrate and think beyond what is on the page and it’s not a book for everyone.
For a start there are three different stories in three different timelines and numerous characters and some side stories along the way. And what they all have in common is Bass Rock set in coastal Scotland.
“something about the Bass Rock was so misshapen, like the head of a dreadfully handicapped child.”
There is Sarah, a young woman in the 1700’s accused of being a witch who is on the run after being saved by a priest and his son. Then in a post-WW2 setting, there is Ruth, who marries a widow and tries to come to terms with being a young bride and stepmother to two young boys. The third story is about Vivienne in present day who grieves for her dead father and comes to Bass Rock to be caretaker of the house once lived in by Ruth.
It’s a difficult thing to do full justice to three very rich stories. For me the strongest story is around Ruth and could have stood alone or at least could have withstood sharing the pages with Vivienne. The one with Sarah was difficult for me to engage with and had little connection to the other two stories.
In Ruth’s story, the behaviour of the village townspeople, and in particular the priest is quite bizarre, yet she is made to feel the odd one out. There is a mysterious ghostly presence in the house which is felt by Ruth and Vivienne and the unravelling of this separate story is violent and difficult to read. The manipulation of Ruth by her husband is infuriating and what goes on in the boy’s boarding school is left to the reader to piece together.
“Ruth had slept badly, waking throughout the night, too hot or too cold, with the smell of the school in her nose, like thick mud and flowers left to rot in their water.”
This is a tale of murder, domestic, sexual and psychological abuse, generational trauma in a largely patriarchal setting. At times brutal, the harshness of life for the women matches the harshness of the landscape. Somehow the thread of resilience and survival binds the women in their relationships with others. For Ruth it’s with Betty the housekeeper, for Vivienne it’s with Maggie a woman she befriends and for Sarah it’s with the boy.
It’s an intricate, haunting and thought-provoking novel, beautifully written. I found myself re-reading it to make sense of some of the story and fully analyse and appreciate the characters.
Nevertheless, this one will stay with me for a quite a while.