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When Marnie Was There

A poignant and beautiful evocation of childhood loneliness and friendship

A self-proclaimed outsider, Anna’s days are spent quietly dreaming. Her imagination is rich but her days are lonely. Until that is, the bewitching Marnie appears, and over the course of one long hot summer, opens Anna’s timid heart to friendship. But Marnie’s enigmatic aura is unsettling. Who is she really, and what is her mysterious behaviour concealing?

It’s now 50 years since the publication of When Marnie Was There. It’s an achingly beautiful minor classic, and I’ve never understood why it isn’t better known. It tells the story of orphan Anna’s momentous summer by the Norfolk sea, a remote world of boats, water, and enormous skies, that accentuate her own small loneliness.

Anna’s days revolve around the beach, picking sea lavender, hunting for the bones of porpoises in the fine, white sand, and nestling in sand burrows, to listen to the waves and the crying gulls. On her wanderings, one dusky evening, Anna chances upon a large, weathered house by the water. Its dark uncurtained windows are like watching eyes. The house has been waiting for her. As has its ethereal occupant.

Marnie is pale in a white silk dress. Silhouetted against a starry sky, the moonlight shimmering on her long golden hair, Marnie looks like she has just stepped from the pages of a fairytale.

‘ Are you real?…’
‘ Yes, are you?’

It is a question that resonates throughout the book, and the ambiguity of the author’s intent adds to its haunting atmosphere. As Anna and Marnie’s worlds entwine, their own identities begin to merge, and become in danger of dissolving.

Joan G. Robinson skilfully manipulates this plot development, as the girls’ friendship heads towards an unexpected conclusion.

Studio Ghibli produced an interesting animated film version of When Marnie Was There, in 2014. Told from a modern Japanese perspective, it captures something of the book’s spirit, and hopefully signposts potential readers to what really is a memorable and special book.


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