Review: ‘When Marnie Was There’ by Joan G Robinson

I first heard of ‘When Marnie Was There’ from Studio Ghibli, a Japanese film studio, who made a film based on the book in 2015 (though I didn’t see it until the following year). Prior to watching it, I had no idea that it was based off of a book, and as I enjoyed the film so much, I just had to see what the book was like too. So when I eventually got round to reading it (my gosh, life gets in the way sometimes!), I knew where the story was headed…but that didn’t ruin it for me at all.

There’s such a richness to this book that I was completely enveloped in the world and characters from start to finish. It’s hard to explain, but it was almost like coming home after being away for a long time – and though I’m sure some of that was down to seeing the film first, I don’t think that was the whole reason.

Let me give a brief overview of the story before I ramble on about how much I loved it. The book is set in the late sixties (it was first published in 1967) and the main character is a girl called Anna. She’s an orphan who doesn’t know much about her family, and finds it hard to get to know people and express herself. She feels like everyone else in ‘inside’, and she’s always on the ‘outside’, even if people ask her to join in with their activities. When she feels uncomfortable around someone, she puts on her ‘normal’ face in the hopes that they’ll lose interest in her and go away.

She is sent away by her foster parents to a small village in Norfolk called Little Overton, for both her health (she has asthma) and a change of pace before school starts again after the holidays. She stays with an elderly couple who are friends with her foster parents, and they let her roam around the village as she pleases, which is how she discovers the Marsh House, a large house on the other side of the marsh that can only be reached by boat. Anna imagines that the house is home to a large, happy family who have parties that go on into the night, but there is no sign that anyone lives there at all.

However, one night she discovers a boat by the marsh, quite empty, as though it’s been left there for her. She rows it out to the Marsh House, and just before she reaches it, a girl calls out for her to throw the rope so she can tie the boat up. The girl’s name is Marnie, and from then on she and Anna become the kind of friends that each of them wished for, but never had. But every so often, Marnie seems to disappear, and soon Anna suspects something strange is going on.

As I said before, there’s certainly a feeling to this book that grabs me (the film has it too, but to a slightly lesser degree). All I can think of to say is that this story is simply beautiful, and one that stays with you for a long time.