Monday, April 24, 2017

Fumbling Through Fantasy: When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson (1967)

Anna struggles to make friends and frequently gets into trouble at her boarding school, which troubles her foster mother, Mrs. Preston. In order to help Anna, Mrs. Preston, whom Anna calls "Auntie," sends her for an extended summer holiday to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Pegg in Norfolk. While exploring the marshes surrounding the Peggs' house, Anna discovers The Marsh House, and eventually meets Marnie, a young girl always dressed in fine clothing who lives in the house and comes to meet Anna in secret at night. Anna and Marnie become fast friends, spending many evenings together on the water and in the dunes. One terrible night, though, their wonderful secret friendship comes to a sad and sudden end, and Marnie says a tearful goodbye as she tells Anna her family is making her go away. Once Marnie is gone, Anna slowly begins to bounce back from the intensity of their friendship, even convincing herself that Marnie may never have existed. When a new family moves into The Marsh House, however, it becomes clear that Anna doesn't yet fully understand her connection to Marnie.

My husband selected the audiobook version of When Marnie Was There for a recent family road trip, and I knew nothing about the book until we started listening. Despite having no plot summary or anything to orient me, I was hooked on the story instantly because I love 1960s novels about female friendship. As I listened, though, it became clear that this book was a cut above others of its type, and I understood why my husband was so adamant about having me hear it.

Robinson is a wonderfully descriptive writer, and I feel as though I can picture every person and location she depicts in this novel as clearly as though I have seen them myself. She also does a wonderful job of blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and she makes it possible (though admittedly not very likely) that a reader could discover the truth about Marnie before Anna does. Though the threads of the plot are somewhat complicated, the telling of the story is straightforward, simple, and therefore beautiful, and the writing speaks to child readers without talking down to them or over-explaining the events of the story.

I drew many parallels between When Marnie Was There and Tom's Midnight Garden, and both books are among some of the most perfect children's stories I have ever read. At first, I was adamant that Tom's Midnight Garden was the superior book, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Robinson's story is every bit as sophisticated and emotional, and whereas Tom's Midnight Garden relies on the magical element of the clock to connect the world of the past and the present, Robinson forgoes any bridge between  reality and fantasy and simply allows the two worlds to exist side-by-side. Both are remarkable books, and anyone who enjoys one should also fall easily in love with the other.

When we returned home from our trip, my husband and I watched the 2014 anime film based on this book. I am not an anime watcher in general, but I mostly enjoyed the film. It had a different feeling from the book, and changed a variety of things, including the setting, and other minor details about Anna's life, but it still felt mostly faithful to the story Robinson was trying to tell. I would definitely not see the movie without reading the book, however. The best way to read the novel is with no prior knowledge and no preconceived notions because then the reader feels as mystified by Marnie as Anna does.

I highly recommend this book to kids ages 10-14 and to adults who appreciate great children's literature.

No comments:

Post a Comment