‘In the memory, which is a child’s memory and unreliable, the eye blinks.’
This novel is set in North Berwick, a small town on Scotland’s Firth of Forth, south-west of the Bass Rock. This is a coast with history, with both beauty and violence. A perfect setting for Ms Wyld’s novel.
The novel opens with a small girl finding the body of a woman in a suitcase on the beach. Her mother tells her to come away, but the girl has already seen inside the suitcase. The girl we meet as a woman, Viv, will tell one of the three stories contained within the novel. Three stories: Sarah’s story in the 1700s, during the time of witch burning, a time of poverty and famine; Ruth’s story after World War II; and Viv’s story in the present. Viv’s story and Sarah’s story are told in the first-person, while Ruth’s is in third person.
‘What is must be to move through life without caring what it thinks of you.’
It’s uneasy read: violence against women and hints of the supernatural are unsettling. The story shifts between past and present: Viv is clearing out the old family home for sale, dealing with her own life as she revisits the past. The house she is clearing was her grandfather’s, Ruth was his second wife.
There are seven parts to this novel. While I think that four parts are named after natural features in the area (The Lamb, St Baldred’s, The Law, and Fidra), I’m not sure about the other three. And always present is the Bass Rock, which has its own history: it was once a refuge for Christians, later a fortress and a prison.
‘Anything is possible.’
Clearing out the house gives Viv a purpose, and an opportunity for reflection. She is befriended by Maggie, a self-confessed witch, who carries a map with crosses denoting women murdered in the region during that year. Women may no longer be murdered as witches, but they are still murdered. Each part of the novel carries a scene of violence against women.
I found this novel a disturbing and constant reminder of violence against women. Versions of the same story repeated over (in this novel) four centuries. Unsettling, and not just fiction. Unsettling, and not just confined to the past. How many women have already been murdered this year?
This is neither a quick read, nor an easy one. The writing is superb, the subject matter disturbing.