Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Tuesday, May 09, 2017 12:30 am by Cristina in , ,    No comments

The Woman Who Ran
by Sam Baker
ISBN: 9780007464357
Harper-Collins
When it was published last year, many reviewers linked Sam Baker's The Woman Who Ran to Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The connection - partly, at least - is intentional but The Woman Who Ran is not a 21st-century retelling of Anne Brontë's trailblazing novel. As Sam Baker herself writes in the Acknowledgements,
Almost last, and definitely not least, Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In my opinion, the most original and radical of the novels written by the Brontë sisters. This is in no way an attempt to rework that great novel of 1848, more a stepping off point for looking at the many ways in which the social and economic status has changed in the last 170 years. And ways in which it hasn't.
It's a very apt explanation of what a Brontëite may derive from this novel, and it's interesting to try and find out the points in common, without missing out on any of the originality of this novel.

The Woman Who Ran tells to the story of Helen (or Hélène), who is described by another character as 'obsessed with the bloody Brontës' when young. She remembers most of her own story clearly enough, but some key days elude her. She is running away from her previous life and seeks refuge in an isolated house, Wildfell, described as
red brick, ivy covered. Faces carved in cheap sandstone around the main door were weathered Botox smooth. If you'd gone to central casting for haunted houses you couldn't have done a better job.
Wildfell is on the edge of the moors, near a small village where gossip goes around at lightning speed. Helen's arrival, then, is of much interest to locals. Among these locals is Gilbert 'Gil' Markham, a divorced, estranged-from-his-daughters, newly-retired journalist who has all the time in the world - as well as the skills - to devote to finding out who Helen may be. They become friendly in spite of Helen's reluctance and Gil's anxious interest in Helen's story.

When Gil has managed to find out enough about Helen's background, it's Helen herself that tells her story. She tells him (à la Helen's diary in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) about her success as a war photographer and about her abusive ex, a war journalist. And this subtle, understated - though still hard to read - portrayal of an abusive relationship and its long-term consequences is the best part of the novel.

Things come to a head when Helen's worst fears - and what she was actually running away from - happens and the reader finds it hard to put the book down.

And although we know that this is not a retelling of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall we can't help but mention the most significant difference in the basic premise. While Anne's Helen runs away from her husband because of her son, Sam Baker's Helen is childless(1). The difference is interesting and something to be considered at length. Would Anne's Helen run away to save herself? We know she wouldn't have, and it's a positive thing that Sam Baker's Helen manages to do so, to run away for herself and herself only.

The Woman who Ran is a gripping novel, one of those books in which characters are not initially lovable, but who have won the reader's heart by the last page. We believe that Anne Brontë would have enjoyed it, even if she had been saddened by the fact that things haven't changed as much as they could have.

Notes
(1) Perhaps that worst bit of the book is that 'wanna-be-gothic' resource of a 'ghost' boy, seen both by Helen (which would at least make some sense) and also by Gil, which - despite the 'sixth sense' explanation - feels contrived and unnecessary.

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