Author: Diana Wynne Jones
This is more like an essay than a review, I’m afraid, but it’s what I could come up with…
I’ve tried to write this review a couple times now, and I am in despair over it because Fire and Hemlock is simply too vast and… well, as Eleanor Cameron said (of a different book) in “The Green and Burning Tree“, it is “a wild, glimmering, shadowed, elusive kind of book.” That’s the best description I can find for it, and it’s not even in my own words.
I really want to review this book, but have absolutely no idea how. So I’m going to start typing and hope something comes out of it besides an incoherent ramble the size of a London train.
Fire and Hemlock is set in a modern-day England in the ’80s… both of which are slightly alien and unfamiliar to this young-ish American reader, so even though it’s “contemporary” and set in the real world, it actually felt a bit fantastical to me… Which is a good thing. (Occasionally I would go “Oh! So that’s what such-and-such is like/called in England! Fascinating!” or “Who knew that you flip records over to listen to the other side?” [I do know about tapes, but not records…])
Beneath the seemingly ordinary setting and life of the heroine, Polly, there runs a strong undercurrent of unusual happenings, rather frightening fantastical goings-on, and some snatches of wild shadowed fae stuff and magical sorts of things. The fact that the ordinary and the fantasy blend so flawlessly together in this book attests once again to Diana Wynne Jones’ brilliant skill as a writer.
As a retelling of the old folk tale/ballad about Tam Lin and also about Thomas the Rhymer, all the bits relating to both that wove into the story were fascinating, especially in said modern setting.
The book left me with a rather dizzying near-belief that it was something that had really happened. Yes, fantasy and all. It was so real that one nourishes a distinct and startlingly-firm suspicion that the whole thing must have actually happened… If not to the author herself, at least to someone she knew. It has that strong of a feeling of being real — at times painfully so. And in just the sort of elusive, mad sort of way, that is always a part of the most real yet strange dreams. I imagine that’s how it would feel like if such things happened to you or I…
There’s stuff about writing, too, which was great, and Polly’s a sort of writer. I liked her. It was fascinating and realistic as well to watch her grow up along the way in the book, from about a ten year old girl to a nineteen year old young woman. A lot of it’s her looking back and trying to remember things about when she was growing up.
Polly and Tom’s friendship — perhaps growing into something more… — is the heart of the book. I just loved it so much. They make up stories together, which in strange and sometimes terrible ways seem to come true. Their friendship is perfectly natural and beautifully written and just I can’t even explain it, but I adore that entire aspect of the book, especially the blooming but unconventional romance. It’s all just so masterfully done.
Of course, the best thing about the book is Mr. Thomas Lynn himself, yet another fabulous unpigeonholeable (that’s a word, I swear; or should be) character which this author seems to excel at. Tom plays cello and drives “like a hero” (a.k.a. like a madman; he is a horrible driver and it’s glorious; the parts with his
horse I mean car were hilarious highlights of the book), has an epic abrupt startling silence which people run up against when he doesn’t want to talk about things, and a sort of yelping laugh which cuts off, and he has colorless hair and glasses which are like another character, and he will perfectly seriously discuss what most people would call “make-believe” with young Polly, since of course they’re in the business of being heroes, and sends her books all the time and you just sort of feel safe when he’s around, even if horrible fantastical things happen, and he’s part of a strange frightening mystery, entangled in it and can’t get free and you just feel awful for him but you know he wouldn’t want you to and that he’s all right, really; except that he’s really not all right at all; and he’s mysterious and also very open in a way, somehow, and you can’t really explain him at all and apparently I need to talk with people who’ve read this because otherwise I’ll just ramble on about him forever? I’m done now. Almost.
(But really, what isn’t to love about a fellow who says of books:
“…don’t do that to that book! … You’ve got it open, lying on its face,” Mr. Lynn said. “The poor thing’s in torment.”
And about fairy stories:
“Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories. Each one has a true, strange fact hidden in it, you know, which you can find if you look.”)
It’s a giant of a book. At 420 very large hardback pages, it’s quite longer than the usual small-to-medium books by Diana Wynne Jones that I’ve read before (with a few exceptions) and yet I never wanted it to end. About halfway through, around when I felt like one of her other books would have been finishing, I panicked and thought, “Oh no, what if it ends soon? It needs to go on and on and on!” And then I checked and with relief and a sort of thrill of triumph, realized I had still a large amount to read. (Though my practical side threw a fit, seeing that it was after midnight and demanding that I go to bed — which I, naturally, ignored. The one strange — or not so strange — fact about Diana Wynne Jones books is that almost all of them that I’ve read, I’ve devoured in a sitting. Or at least in a single day. Which is fine for ordinarily lengths. But not so much for a 400+ page fantastic monster of a book which I started late at night to begin with… This was a stay-up-till-after-3-a.m. sort of book. I REGRET NOTHING.)
It is at once new and old. It gave me the feeling that I might have read it before, maybe, or had always known about it, while being at the same time entirely undiscovered. It reminded me of several other books that I’ve read and loved (or, considering the publication dates, I might better say they remind me of it…), while at the same time being completely unique. It’s like it somehow took snatches of a ton of books I love and weaved bits of them together into something new, but being its own thing at the same time. (The Penderwicks, The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, as well as other books by Diana Wynne Jones… I feel like there were several others as well.) Also, all of the books it mentions, which Tom sends to Polly to read, were so fun to see listed — both the ones I’ve read and loved, and the ones I’ve not read and in some cases not even heard of (which of course makes me want to read them).
(“Polly had discovered The Lord of the Rings and was reading it for the fourth time under her desk in Maths.” was a particularly fabulous line in the book…)
In the category of complaints, it had its faults — all books do (well, except for a small handful, including a certain other book by the same author).
I will admit that I wanted much more of Tom himself in the story than he actually appeared in, but that can hardly be helped when it’s from the point of view of a girl who’s not allowed to see him and only does so from time to time.
It is also set in a modern setting, and therefore has some of the inevitable problems which are why I don’t like modern books much… (public school, so-called “friends”, split-up families etc.) but I liked this one in spite of them — like I said, it felt so real, so I can’t exactly complain about what happened as if it’s just a plot device if it happened, now can I? (I will say that poor Polly kind of has a dreadful life. …Actually, Tom does too. And yet here they are, plowing along! I suppose that’s heroism, right there…)
And the ending seemed to be rather sudden and, leading up to it, extremely vague to my mind so that I am still extremely confused and not entirely sure exactly what happened… though that could have just been the fact that by the time I reached the ending it was past 3 a.m., so that could have been the clock and/or a sleep-fogged mind talking… I also am of the opinion that many Diana Wynne Jones books require a second or perhaps third reading to fully understand it, especially some endings, so perhaps I’ll be all right if I read it again. And I don’t think it’s the author’s fault… I feel like it just went over my head or something. I do relish a thing that I don’t quite understand, when it means there’s always more to unearth in subsequent go-throughs.
It’s a book that you have to think about, which might not please some people, but definitely pleased me.
And of course, it’s the sort of book one spends most of the next day (or week… or month…) occasionally dipping back through it and rereading — preferably aloud, if any poor soul is near to be quoted at — the fabulously hilarious bits and smiling insanely over, just because you like it, even though you can’t quite understand why. That’s my experience, anyway…
I read this book on New Year’s Day (as I said, staying up till past 3, because it simply had to be finished!), which was a marvelous way to kick off my reading for the year.
And yes, it has taken me nearly an entire month to get around to writing this review. I still don’t feel as if I’ve done it justice. It’s quite simply impossible to describe.
I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it may have been mine. And quite good tea at that. Properly and gloriously British, bitter and sweet at once, and just the thing for a (long) rainy day, when one is longing for an elusive tale with a dose of ordinary mixed up with a dash of fantastic, as well as one-of-a-kind vibrant characters, a glorious love story (Tom would be berating me for that; sorry), and an enormous amount of classic Diana Wynne Jones humor.
I’ll be reading Fire and Hemlock again, I hope.
(And if you read this entire review, I quite sincerely applaud you and offer you cupcakes. Here.)
Polly has two sets of memories…
One is normal: school, home, friends. The other, stranger memories begin nine years ago, when she was ten and gate-crashed an odd funeral in the mansion near her grandmother’s house. Polly’s just beginning to recall the sometimes marvelous, sometimes frightening adventures she embarked on with Tom Lynn after that. And then she did something terrible, and everything changed.
But what did she do? Why can’t she remember? Polly must uncover the secret, or her true love — and perhaps Polly herself — will be lost.
Genre/Category: Contemporary / Fantasy / Retelling (of Tam Lin)
Age Group: YA
Pages: 420 hardcover
When Read: January 1, 2016
Favorite Character: Tom Lynn, naturally
Other Notes: Received for Christmas. (And I now realize how ironic that is, given how many books are being recieved for Christmas within the book itself…)
Thanks for reading!
Dream away in those pages…
~ The Page Dreamer