Kristin at We Be Reading hosted a Diana Wynne Jones reading month in March, and I felt this was the perfect time to pick up Fire and Hemlock by Jones. I once won a copy of this book on Ana’s blog, and knowing it was a particular favourite of hers I felt the book merited some particular attention while reading. I’m glad to say I did not need to remind myself of that once I started reading. Fire and Hemlock is simply magical and pulls you right in.
Fire and Hemlock is about a girl, Polly, who one day realises she has two sets of memories. A “regular” one, and another that feature strange and sometimes dangerous adventures with a man called Tom Lynn. Adventures that they would imagine together, but that would inevitably come true. Reliving her memories of that time, she comes to realise that she did something terrible one day, that made her forget about Tom and that other life. And through it all, she begins to realise the urgency of her recovering those memories, and determining a way of setting things right.
One of the truly astounding things about Fire and Hemlock is that it can be read on so many levels, and that all of them work.
On one level, Polly’s story is that of a girl growing up in a broken home, with a father and a mother who are both too caught up in their own drama to really give Polly the attention and love she deserves. As a child of 10, when she meets Tom Lynn, and in the subsequent years, the stories that Tom and Polly think up together could very well be read an escape from reality. Diana Wynne Jones handles realistic childhood and teenage stories well: friends growing apart, the feeling of losing grip, confusion about your place in the world, etcetera. Fire and Hemlock also heavily features reading and stories as ways of learning about the world and your role in it. Tom often sends Polly stories to read, and it is hard not to wish for a similar childhood friend who provides you with literature, when you are a voracious reader yourself. Furthermore, the stories Tom sends her provide clues towards the reader and Polly on what is happening to her and Tom, a remarkably clever way of using intertextuality.
Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that the supernatural elements of the book cannot just be read as Polly telling herself stories (although the importance of stories remains). Slowly, faerie myth enters the story. And I have to say, Diana Wynne Jones does it beautifully. There is the whole element of the creepy and wonderful about it. Her world building is pitch perfect. With the faerie aspect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell sometimes, because it has the same perfect blending of the real and imaginary world (though in a different manner). There was a rush to the second half of the story, even more so than the first half, that kept me in my chair and wouldn’t allow me to stop reading (except to tell twitter how much I loved this book) before I got to the end.
The ending of the book is slightly weird and confusing. It is not straightforward at all, and it can feel a little rushed. I think it might take some joy out of the story for some. However, after discussing the ending with Ana (which I would recommend to anyone), I feel that on top of being confusing, it also lends itself for a reading of the book that packs even more meaning into those 400 pages. Ana send me a link to a remarkably clever essay on Jones’ inspiration for Fire and Hemlock, with the remarks that it borrows elements from the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer ballads, as well as the Odyssey and Cupid and Psyche. Now, don’t let all those names scare you off. I haven’t read any of them and the story still worked perfectly for me. But I think it might be interesting to return to the book and reread it once I know more about those other stories. But more than my admiration of Diana Wynne Jones’ superb way of incorporating other texts into her own story, it was Ana’s reading of the book as portraying different forms of love (Polly’s mother’s controlling and obsessive love, her grandmother’s and Tom’s selfless love, Polly’s own love that undergoes several changes) that put this book firmly into the favourites list.
I loved this book. Diana Wynne Jones’ is a star in blending elements of the realistic and the supernatural, and doing it in such a way that every bit of story resonates with even more meaning. The ending might have been slightly over my head (there are parts I still do not understand: the horse, the car crushing the roses?), but nevertheless it was a spectacular read that I cannot wait to reread it. Or read more by Diana Wynne Jones, for that matter.
Other Opinions: Valentina’s Room, Jenny’s Books, A Striped Armchair, Necromancy Never Pays, Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog, Shelf Love, BookLust, Page247, Stella Matutina, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Tales from the Reading Room, Dogear Diary, Tip of the Iceberg, We Be Reading, everyday reads, Rhinoa’s Ramblings.
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