Friday, 26 February 2010

Review of 'Marnie', by Winston Graham

Please note that this review contains plot spoilers.

I first read Marnie when my parents bought me a second-hand Readers Digest condensed book whilst I was recovering from an operation back in 1988. Of the four stories in that book, Marnie, by Winston Graham, captivated me utterly. Readers Digest condensed books are disliked by many - and perhaps rightly so - but Marnie got under my skin. I still have the condensed book, which has probably been read well over a dozen times.

Towards the end of last year I coincidentally read all twelve books of the 'Poldark' series. These proved to be a highly enjoyable read, and I was surprised to see that they were also written by Winston Graham. Then, at a fete in September, I found a 1974-issue paperback of the full novel 'Marnie' on a second-hand stall.

It took me six months to start reading it. There were several reasons for this: firstly, I wanted to finish off the Poldark books; secondly, I preferred to read books that I had not read before. The main reason, however, was that I loved the condensed book so much, and I was afraid that the full novel would somehow be disappointing.

I need not have worried.

Marnie tells the story of Marnie, a young English woman at the start of the 1960s. It is clear from the very start of the novel that she is a thief - she joins a company as a secretary, waits until payday, then steals the payroll. She invents identities and throws them away at will - in one company she is Mollie Jeffrey; at another, Mary Taylor. This leads to the central question of the book: who is Marnie?

Unfortunately for Marnie, she commits one crime too many. Whilst working at a printing firm in London she comes to the attention of a director, Mark Rutland, a young widower, who falls in love with her. She steals the payroll and takings, and disappears. Mark discovers the theft and replaces the money out of his own pocket. Then he sets out to track Marnie down...

There are two loves in Marnie's life: her mother, a widower living in Plymouth, and Forio, an ex-racehorse she bought with the takings of her earlier crimes. Her love for Forio is superbly written, and it becomes obvious that her only true relationship is with the horse. All of her other relationships are, to varying degrees, lies.

Mark tracks Marnie down and forces her to marry him. This is the one piece of the book that unsettles me - he rapes her on their honeymoon. Afterwards he realises that she is physically repulsed - not by him, but by the mere concept of sex. He bribes her into seeing a psychiatrist, who starts getting a little too near the truth for her liking.

A business partner and rival of Mark suspects there is something dark in Marnie's past and starts digging. He soon realises that she is not who she claims to be. He is driven by a combination of jealousy, pettiness and hatred for Mark.

As events close in on Marnie, she and Mark go on a hunt. As she sees a fox being butchered she flees on Forio, riding off in a random direction, letting Forio run. Mark follows. She jumps a hedge to find a stream on the other side. This is, for me, the most powerful part of the book. Mark follows her over the hedge and ends up lying face-down in the mud.
That noise, that unbearable noise, was coming from Forio.
He was trying to get up but he couldn't. I pulled myself up and fell down again, got up again, staggered towards him. Then I saw Mark. He was lying very still. I ran towards Forio.
Her husband is lying unconscious in the mud, and her first reaction is to run towards her horse. This one snippet details her utter disconnection with the rest of humanity.

She tries to steal the company's payroll as Mark is recovering in hospital. She finds herself in front of the open safe, unable to bring herself to take the money. Instead she flees down to Plymouth, only to find that her mother has just died. This leads to the unveiling of the truth behind her past, and the reason she has chosen to live her life as a series of ever-changing identities.

After her mother's funeral she is tracked down by Mark's business partner, who returns her to London. Once there, he takes her to meet representatives of the companies she has stolen from. She is faced with a choice: to run, or to face up to her past and her crimes. She chooses the latter, anchored by Mark's love for her.

As with all Graham books, it is essentially a character piece. Marnie's character is so brilliantly written - the reader should dislike her as much as she dislikes herself, but in the end she turns out to be a captivating creature. Mark's character is also superb - he loves Marnie utterly, and will do anything to help her, whatever the cost. Yet Marnie does not want to help herself, as that would mean facing up to her past.

In 1964 Hitchcock made the book into a film starring Sean Connery. I cannot stress how much I hate the film. For one thing, Hitchcock changed the action from England to Philadelphia, and thus lost the quintessential English character of the book. Additionally, Marnie's character and motivations were very much moulded by the hardships of the Second World War.

All in all, I love this book as much as when I first read it. It is very much a book set in that post-war period; Marnie's life and crimes would be very different nowadays. I give this book five out of five stars. Highly recommended.