“The Bass Rock is a story of three women’s lives over four centuries,” says Australian author Evie Wyld. “The thing that joins them all is their persecution by men.”
Wyld, who is based in the UK, won the 2021 Stella prize for Australian women’s writing on Thursday night. The celebration of her third novel couldn’t be more timely.
The Bass Rock was described by the Guardian as “a complex, searingly controlled catalogue of male violence against women”, set on the coast of Scotland across three time periods, from the 1700s to today.
But while the narrative time travels, its premise is timeless: in Australia, multiple allegations of rape, harassment and gendered injustice continue to besiege the country’s highest political institution; and the UK is still reeling from the murder of Sarah Everard.
“To have this prize in particular – that is so supportive of women and their work – it just feels like having a light shone on the work that I managed to do,” Wyld says. “Especially after such a year that we’ve had.”
Shortlisted alongside Wyld were Rebecca Giggs for Fathoms: the World in the Whale; SL Lim for Revenge: Murder in Three Parts; Laura Jean McKay for The Animals in That Country; Louise Milligan for Witness; and Mirandi Riwoe for Stone Sky Gold Mountain.
Chair of the 2021 Stella prize judging panel, Zoya Patel, dubbed Wyld’s book a “true work of art” that “forces the reader to engage with the unique narrative structure, in a way that feels effortless”.
Wyld, who won the 2014 Miles Franklin for her second novel All the Birds, believes the “unique” style of The Bass Rock is a result of the “very peculiar time” in which she began to write it.
“I started just as I had a baby in 2014. I had a deep fear that in the middle of my writing career, I’d lose myself, and I’d lose my work.”
So, during her then newborn son’s one-hour naps, Wyld would write.
“Part of the sprawlingness of the book comes from the fact that I only had time to write what was on the tip of my brain,” she says. And on the tip of her brain – “for a reason I couldn’t explain at the time” – were short stories about murder and death.
Wyld’s father had passed a year prior. She had inherited photographs of his childhood family holiday that shared an eerie parallel with her own.
“They were of my father as a child, and of me as a child, [both taken] at the Bass Rock on the coast of Scotland. He was wearing a horrible woollen swimming costume, and I was standing there freezing my tits off in the ‘80s. But the thing that remained the same was the rock. It was this really interesting telescoping of time between us, which I wanted to write into my characters.”
Among these narrative layers, Wyld “found three voices”.
Sarah, in the 1700s, is accused of being a witch and runs for her life. Travelling forward to the 1950s, Ruth moves into her widowed husband’s home, inheriting his two young sons. And in the present day, dealing with loss and grief, is Viviane – “a thinly veiled version of myself”, says Wyld.
They form a complex, sprawling web of female grief at the hands of toxic masculinity, with the Bass Rock as their shared and looming backdrop.
The #MeToo movement of 2016 solidified the common thread. “It made us realise that this is a collective grief and collective experience. And it made me start to see how being persecuted as a witch in the 1700s correlated with being spoken over as a woman in the 2000s.”
Wyld says that she doesn’t “really write with an objective, which – particularly in this book – must seem a bit strange”.
“But I think I was just trying to put into words that feeling of fatigue, of being vigilant at all times. Of having on your to-do list to ‘be careful, don’t get raped, don’t get murdered, don’t let harm come to the children’.
“I think if there was something that in the writing of the book I really wanted to do – as a very quiet person who doesn’t like being confrontational – was that whenever I started to edit myself to avoid conflict, I instead went towards it.”
Wyld says this motivation came partly from the catchphrase of Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardsark’s podcast, My Favourite Murder. “‘Fuck politeness,’ they say. I don’t know if you can say that at the Guardian.
“But it is so important. It is acknowledging that women are taught to be polite above their own safety and instinct … Everything is about preserving the dignity of the man. It’s the most important thing to break that.”
When read among the countless anecdotes of women’s discomfort, frustration, fear, vulnerability and trauma at the hands of men, the edges of The Bass Rock as a historical fiction seem to blur, merging with a biography representative of almost every female.
There is this constant movement of “amassing and releasing this collective grief of women and their rage”, which transcends place and time, says Wyld. The Bass Rock speaks directly to it.