Fire and Hemlock

Fire and Hemlock

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 d...

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Title:Fire and Hemlock
Author:Diana Wynne Jones
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Edition Language:English

Fire and Hemlock Reviews

  • Deepthi

    I wish I could give this book infinite stars.

  • Jessica

    (Pre-1985-) Dianna Wynne Jones is my absolute favorite writer of all time. Since I've gotten this far with cataloguing much of my reading history, I had to make sure this fact is recorded here somewhere. I actually haven't read this one -- my favorite -- in years, mostly because I'm terrified I'll discover it can no longer do for me anything like what it did when I was a kid.

    I really wish I could read anything now that would give me the kind of experience I had as a child reading Ms.

    (Pre-1985-) Dianna Wynne Jones is my absolute favorite writer of all time. Since I've gotten this far with cataloguing much of my reading history, I had to make sure this fact is recorded here somewhere. I actually haven't read this one -- my favorite -- in years, mostly because I'm terrified I'll discover it can no longer do for me anything like what it did when I was a kid.

    I really wish I could read anything now that would give me the kind of experience I had as a child reading Ms. Jones's books. Somewhere she has an essay or an interview where she talks about the difference between writing for kids and writing for adults. What she says is that you don't have to explain every little thing to kids the way you do to grownups, because they just intuitively understand the unwritten logic of the world you're describing, which I really think is true. It's because she exploits this that her books are so amazing: they hook into some kind of childhood mental processes and content, so that much of the story doesn't need to be written, and is actually being told in collaboration with the wee, developing mind on a much more vivid and intensely personal level than would be possible just from reading a regular book, if that makes any sense... I guess as you get older, all that fluid, multicolored, unlimited swirly stuff in the immature brain dries up, and whatever's left gets dammed and filtered into these confining narrow, crusty little channels. I can't engage with fiction at all the way I did when I was a kid, which is the chief reason why I don't read much anymore, now that I'm grown. Now I sit there and think, "Here I am, reading this book," or "This book is well-written," or "that doesn't seem plausible." How deeply unsatisfying is *that*?

    Dianna Wynne Jones's best books follow one brilliant pattern, which I'm not really going to get into here except to say that the endings are always the same: huge, chaotic, messy implosions in which the characters, time, space, and a thousand different worlds all reach some frenetic pitch and then collapse in on themselves with a hugely satisfying crash. Hooray! When I was younger, my dream was to travel to England in an effort to meet Dianna Wynne Jones. I sort of let go of that dream, though, when I realized I couldn't think of anything to say. Maybe now I could tell her: "Oh, screw Harry Potter!" And then I could thank her.

    Thank you, Ms. Jones!

  • Chris

    is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text. The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young

    is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text. The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of

    and a whole host of other plots and characters. Thomas Lynn is the young man, Laurel his fairy queen and young Polly (whom we follow from just before she starts secondary education to when she is in her first year at Oxford) is Tom’s apparent saviour. We also get to meet Polly’s dysfunctional family, her grandmother and her school friends, along with Tom’s associates, both human and otherworldly.

    The novel succeeds on a human level, largely because it seems to have a autobiographical flavour to it: Polly, like Jones, is drawn to books even though her parents largely disapprove, and like Jones, is able to create other realities through the power of story. Jones’ book references, quite apart from their relevance to the plot (as when Tom insists that Polly reads the book on fairy tales he has sent her), must be a good indicator of Diana's own childhood and adult reading matter. Joan Aiken's

    is one of the first mentioned (published in 1962, not too long before Jones embarked on her own writing career and which may have been an inspiration); then there's some E Nesbit stories,

    ,

    of course, and tales of King Arthur (a running theme in many of Diana's books, most obviously in

    and

    ). Another long-recognised influence on

    is T S Eliot’s

    , principally the images and structure, though many of Jones’ potential young adult readership would remain less aware of this (as I was, until it was pointed out to me).

    There are so many avenues to explore in this tantalising novel, but I will begin by thinking about the significance of names. I'll start with the fairy who seduces the Tom Lin character, Laurel (or, to give her the names she has in the Will reading which takes place early in the novel, Eudora Mabel Lorelei Perry Lynn Leroy). Eudora ("good, excellent gift") was one of the Greek sea nymphs, but perhaps the name is used rather ironically here, as is Mabel (from French

    , "loveable"). Lorelei of course is the siren of the Rhine, a literary creation apparently, a river nymph who ensnared passing males. Perry, probably originally of Welsh origin (ap Hari, son of Harry), here is probably a reference to peri, an exotic alternative name for a fairy. Lynn of course was her married name, while Leroy is the surname of her new husband, Morton; Leroy is from French

    , the king, referring to Seb's father as an Oberon type of Fairy King. (The other father-figure in Polly's life is her own weak-willed dad Reg, whose name also harks back to Latin

    "king". It's all rather

    , isn't it? Jones of course dwells on this at length later the the book.)

    Lorelei naturally got anglicised as Laurel. The bay laurel is used in cooking, but it is advisable not to eat the whole leaves as they can damage internal organs, so I suppose this is appropriate for Polly's adversary. Another bane of Polly's life is her mother Ivy, poison perhaps by name and certainly poison by nature, though this being Britain (where there is no poison ivy) the smothering nature of the parasitic ivy is what is being alluded to. Another little etymological puzzle, the enigmatic Mary Fields: what's her role? She is of course a natural rival for Tom's affections with Polly Whittacker (= "white acre").

    The novel has three locations, London, Oxford and Bristol, all three of which are places where DWJ lived and which reflect on the part-autobiographical nature of

    . Somewhere in the middle of this triangle must be Middleton (hence its name, perhaps). Nearby Stow-on-the-Water is a mash-up of two real places in the Cotswolds, Bourton-on-the-Water (a largish village, characterised by lots of pedestrian bridges over the river and presumably liable to flooding) and Stow-on-the-Wold (which exactly matches up with the description of the fictional Stow except the market cross is more recent than the Saxon period). In Jones’ fictional England topography and atmosphere are similar to but not the same as the real England of the mid-80s, and are her attempt to transfer the world of the Scottish Border ballads to the southern Britain that she knew well.

    Oxford gets a relatively short space in the novel; while Jones went to St Anne's College, Polly in the novel goes to St Margaret's. St Margaret's is the novel's version of the real-life Lady Margaret Hall (another college founded for women students), and this college's coat-of-arms is instructive. First of all it features a portcullis (the gate features in the incident in a Ghost Castle at the fair), and secondly the motto is

    ("I often remember"), highly appropriate for one of the overarching themes of the novel. Possibly coincidentally there is an early years school in Headington, Oxford called Hunsdon House, which may have inspired Laurel’s supernatural mansion: did Diana's children attend this school when she lived there?

    Like many others I've had to reread the ending quite a few times and, yes, it is very obscure what has actually happened, and how. Polly realises that the only way she can save Tom from dying is to lose him, but somehow she and Tom are together in the final chapter. I can only surmise that we have to add together the two insights that Polly gives us: (1) Tom has been using her to try to save himself from his fate; and (2) Polly says she doesn't want to see him again. In a way nearly everybody is using somebody else (even Polly’s Granny, who has been trying to find out what happened to her own loved one in the past), and also in a way, we all use others, strangers as well as friends; the point being that we put others first before ourselves if we truly love them. When Polly declares she doesn't want to see Tom again, presumably she means the selfish Tom who tried to save himself, whom we contrast with Polly who is prepared to give up her happiness to save Tom.

    Jones’ lovely wordplays on Now and Here and Nowhere, which we first meet on stone vases in the grounds of Hundon House, are clearly a facet of Jones’ favourite themes of parallel worlds and existences, related in this case to the different paths referenced in the ballads. This may be easier to fathom than the book’s title. Commentaries have pointed out the significances of these two story elements: fire standing for life, in particular creative energy, hemlock standing for death, the two representing the quick (the living) and the dead. In the finale hemlock plants are described as growing next to the pool, the portal to death. Jones spent some of her childhood years in Wales, so she would have been familiar with the Welsh word

    , which means "fire". Hence the hero names of the members of the quartet (which of themselves seem otherwise quite arbitrary). So some of the underlying symbolism (the flooding in Stow, the depressing rainy British weather, the ripples of the Hunsdon House pool) can be seen as reflecting the antithesis of the literary and creative sparks that Polly and her friends exhibit. Perhaps the Tam Lin of the ballads reminded Jones of Welsh

    'fire' and Welsh

    'lake' and from these she took her cues.

    The use of musical terms in the novel might help in interpreting the ending. Fire and Hemlock really is about the power of words to change reality, and Jones, like many another fantasy-writer, also uses words to subvert what passes for reality. So, though Eliot's

    poems are implicitly referred to, and Tom is part of a string quartet in

    , the addition of a fifth player, Polly, is what changes the dynamics of everything. That is reflected in the divisions of the book: four parts (like the movements of a string quartet composition) but with the addition of a tail-piece, the Coda, an envoi to the work. This coda is Polly herself, and it marks the real division in her life, from being the tomboy (I use the word deliberately) that Tom has used for his own purposes to the young woman who has shouldered the responsibilities of being an adult.

    The choice of words for tempi in the different parts is very deliberate. Allegro vivace: both words mean 'lively', with allegro also implying brisk/quick; this is Fire as Life. Andante cantabile: at a walking pace (not slow, really) but also sung (there's a lot here about the books Tom sends Polly, including

    ). Allegro con fuoco: 'with fire'; how more explicit can Jones be? The third movement, traditionally a rather sedate minuet, morphed into a faster more playful scherzo by the 19th century, but here it has morphed even more. Presto molto agitato: final movements were invariably very fast, and so this part of the book urgently rushes like a headstrong horse to its climactic scene at Hunsdon House.

    A coda is something tagged on, and in music it is usually the final section of a movement. In this novel it stands outside the formal scheme, a fifth not-movement. Marked scherzando, its musical meaning ('playful') refers also to Jones' intention for this section: it is a play on words, a pun, a joke (this is what scherzo literally translates as in Italian). She is trying to say that at the last Polly's words are a verbal sleight-of-hand, a word-magician's way of misdirecting Laurel as to her real intentions. And like any good magician Jones doesn't quite reveal how she has done the trick.

  • Elena

    I had a lot of fun reading Fire and Hemlock, and if you like DWJ, don’t miss it. I won’t review it, but I’d like to make a reading guide that will allow me to remember how things work. The mechanics are not simple, but the book doesn’t need the exposure of its guts to be enjoyed. Except perhaps for the ending. That bit is confusing.

    For DWJ's thoughts on her book, read her essay on heroics in Fire & Hemlock. I rehash lots of what she says there.

    Let’s start with the underlyin

    I had a lot of fun reading Fire and Hemlock, and if you like DWJ, don’t miss it. I won’t review it, but I’d like to make a reading guide that will allow me to remember how things work. The mechanics are not simple, but the book doesn’t need the exposure of its guts to be enjoyed. Except perhaps for the ending. That bit is confusing.

    For DWJ's thoughts on her book, read her essay on heroics in Fire & Hemlock. I rehash lots of what she says there.

    Let’s start with the underlying myths: 1) Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, 2)Hero and Leander, and 3) Cupid and Psyche.

    Those three myths give how the plot should be read on the emotional level. It is a story of a female Hero in a personal relationship. Tam Lin gives the basic plot: a previous attachment to the Queen of the Fairies, solved by holding on to true love.

    Cupid and Psyche suggest that the Hero will commit a fault. Like in the myth, it’s spying (as it signifies holding on too much, it is a departure from Tam Lin), and must afterwards seek her beloved; it introduces the theme of the seeker. Tom has Cupid’s attributes (think the bow from the cello and his deficient eyesight) and shows Laurel as Venus, the powerful source of his gifts. It’s also important to understand that, like Cupid’s allegory of profane and divine love, Polly’s journey is that of locating in herself the heroic bits and living up to their standard. That’s essentially why she can never withdraw what she says at the end, despite a priori being free from Laurel’s influence. It would mean the failure of her heroic journey.

    The story of Hero and Leander gives the rhythm of Tom and Polly’s relationship: they meet time and time again but are each time separated, and it suggests that he must go to hell at the end, and that she’ll follow him there. One is reminded of the myth of Orpheus, another musician, who must seek his beloved in Hades, and loses her due to lack of patience. But the timing is off: he’s the musician, but she’s the seeker, and the fault is earlier in the plot and thus was already committed when the lovers are in hell. It's completely different to go to hell for your sins than to stay there, being previously innocent. Here, her betrayal frees him. Orpheus doesn’t give plot points, but we recognize the common theme.

    The structure and tone are from 1)The Odyssey, 2) TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, 3)1001 Nights.

    The Odyssey gives its structure as heroic travel told in flashbacks. It also goes back to the hell theme- Odysseus must go to Hades after leaving Circe, the witch-goddess who murdered her husband. Of course, Laurel is a witch goddess who murders husbands.

    TS Eliot is the underlying music that is either turned up or down when DWJ needs it. It gives the garden, the pond, the string quartet, and the final wordplay. It also gives the literal key to the resolution and the general obsession with the passage of time. I would argue that, of the multiple references, Four Quartets is the first and most important driving force of the narrative, because it gives the tone.

    Lastly, 1001 nights introduces the idea of storytelling as lifesaving mean, the blur between reality and imagination (of which Eliot says “human kind/ Cannot bear much reality.”), and the idea that the female character is fated to save the male character. That appears also in Tam Lin. It's so problematic that you better throw in the weight of as many myths as possible to make it more palatable.

    By now it should be obvious that Fire & Hemlock strongly relies on trinities. First, the trinity of the setting, based on the permutations of “here” and “now” from the vases.

    - The “here-now”, where Tom is an adult cellist and Polly is a child who reads books and has friends.

    - The “nowhere”, where Lauren rules and where the train leads. It’s clearly reminiscent of hell, including the persephonic episode where Polly refuses to eat and drink.

    - The “where now?”, inhabited by Hero, Tan Could, Tan Audel, Tan Hanivar and Tan Thare, the giant, the ironmonger, and everything they imagine together.

    Each setting is build in with the others like interlocked spirals. You can imagine the DNA with three lines, but I would prefer to see it as a rotating jigsaw puzzle. Each of the three rotations shows a different pattern.

    There are also triunvirates of characters. The one of the “here-now” is deceptively important. Fire and Hemlock is, unlike many fantasies, a book of personal relationships, and the characterizations of Polly’s friends is given much attention. We have Nina (the dumb one), Polly, and Fiona (the clever one). We also have the trinity of ages: Granny (wisdom), Ivy (the couch-dweller) and Polly (still the seeker)

    Ivy could be replaced by Laurel. They are similar in Laurel’s mistrust of human imagination- Tom is punished with having what he imagines become true and come back to bite him. That's how he becomes True Thomas; unlike Thomas the Rhymer, who was true without threats. Laurel confuses facts and fiction at will. It’s also what Ivy does. Again, the blur between reality and imagination is a major theme (found in 4 Quartets, 1001 nights...) We could lump together Ivy and Laurel, have Polly still in the middle, and on the other end her father and his partner, who have outed imagination from their life.

    The triad Laurel/Ivy/Polly has the interest of not only evoking the old idea of maiden/mature woman/crone, but of being very close to a particular celebrated triple goddess, that composed of Persephone, Demeter and Hekate. The parallels are obvious: Persephone travels between worlds, Demeter is perpetually abandoned, Hekate is the goddess of witchcraft.

    Despite her rigged gifts, Laurel does keep her bargains, and that’s why Polly starts opportunely to remember her "where now?" life. Her pact with Laurel was to forget, but she was to be left alone, and Laurel can’t keep her part because of Seb and Leroy.

    Returning to the problem of identity: Laurel is the queen of the fairies, Venus, Circe, Calypso, Hades, Hekate, all of whom similar archetypes. But who are Polly and Tom? The truth is that Diana filled her book with so much subtext that the main characters must constantly switch roles: each has a the mythic personification corresponding to each one of these references, but they’re not fixed in a particular archetype. And hence the name Polly, “many”. She is the crucible for all of DWJ's intertextual plays.

    Tom? Cupid, Tam Lin, but he's mainly Thomas the Rhymer, as the name says. It seems relevant to note that the queen of the fairies in the ballad shows him the way to three lands (heaven, hell and home), the theme of eating in hell is revisited, as is the ability to return home from fairyland, and Truth is essential to be able to walk one of those roads. Thomas was a prophet; and that's one reason why Tom always seems to know so much more than Polly. And boom! One way to understand the ending is right there: (1) Thomas must be true to walk the way back home, and that implies giving up the cello (Thomas the Rhymer is given the choice between prophecy and becoming a harper), giving up imagination (the horse), and also giving up Polly (he must be true to Laurel too in order to fulfill his contract with the queen).

    And so we have come to the ending. There's one interpreation above, but don't worry, there's many more. This is also how it can be understood:

    (2). As the literal illustration of Eliot.

    “To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

    
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.


    In order to arrive at what you do not know


    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

    
In order to possess what you do not possess


    You must go by the way of dispossession.[...]


    And where you are is where you are not.”

    She’s in nowhere: she must apply the poem and do the opposite of what she should do, that’s to say, as per the Ballad of Tam Lin, holding on. But that, in the novel, is based on the knowledge of the internal logic of another work (the Quartets) and is too unsatisfying an ending for a story with emotional resonance. I understand that bit of the Quarters as a meditation on change and how it integrates in time: it's as surprised as any mathematician by our ability to go from 0 to 1 and to be in 0 until we are in 1. Although great poetry, I don't think that subtext can really be applied to Fire and Hemlock, because it goes in any case from 1 to 0 and because we are at the climax of the novel, where a reflection on change (a theme that is present, of course, in the measure that it is a YA novel, but not really dominant) would blend very badly with the heroic background. Myths never change; Ulysses, Cupid, even Psyche, learn but don't change. So I do think that DWJ took the chance to use the poem as a literal guide, but only as an in-joke.

    Let’s look at it a bit more, using now a narrative key and not a litterary one:

    (3) We see just what we already knew: that Laurel rigs her games. The same way that she inverted her gift to Thomas, she builds a duel based on weakness. The less you have, the more you win. Thomas doesn’t understand it in time (though Ann does) and Polly must strip him of what he has. That works within the walls of the novel, but is less interesting in itself. Unless maybe we think that he does gather his inner strength once he has abandoned the props, and, as the epigraph to Eliot says,

    “The way upward and the way downward are the same.”

    That is a moral way to understand the ending. Weakness and strength are two faces of the same coin, etc. etc. Do I think it's the one we should chose? Honesetly, no. I don't think DWJ is as big on fables as she is on myths. I think we should seek the key to our ending in a way that it resolves the problem between blurring reality and imagination and Polly's heroic journey, both of which stand at the heart of the novel. Change and inner strenght do not. And I don't find in the book any true clue to Tom gathering his inner strenght once Polly betrays him: he just goes and wins.

    (4) Or we can stick to following the lines of the narration, but blame the fact that he sinks not on the duel itself but on his original gift from Laurel, that always turns what he summons against him. Read that way, Tom's lucky not to have brought Polly on his behalf, because Leroy might have called on Laurel herself. But I'm not sure how to interpret the rules of the duel in that light. Why say it at all? It seems redundant to me.

    (5)Another way to see it would be with the pond as an allegory of imagination: the cello, Laurel's gift (personified in the horse) and Polly bring Tom closer to it, but if he disappears in there he can never come back to the "here now" (artist's descent into madness, thin veil between reality and imagination, etc.) I find I like this interpretation because I think it correlates nicely with real life: Tom's struggles and strength must be focused on his job (music), his relationship (Polly), and his hobbies (storytelling), but if he's goes in them to deep he loses his foothold on reality. That's a real problem directly deriving from his strenghts; hence the rules of the duel. His gift goes against him because it is a gift from a goddess, never one to make the person that receives it less special or less genius-y.

    The ways I find to understand the ending are not entirely integrable. Almost, but not quite. And it could be interesting to seek a different way of understanding the ending for every set of rules: the ones of the where-now, the nowhere and the here-now, but that's a job for another day.

    And do Tom and Polly end up together, despite the fact that she has to keep meaning what she said? Sure. It just means that she has to keep loving Tom enough to let him go, or she’ll lose him. It’s the same curse under which any sane relationship operates.

    You see, I like the ballad of Tam Lin. Janet is awesome. But it is the story of a woman pregnant by a married man (unhappily married to the Queen of the Fairies, but still) holding on to him despite him being horrible to her (he turns into monsters. Uuuh.). That accounts for the fact that the Queen gets the ominous last words in the Ballad: there is no, there can't be, a happy ending in store for Janet and Tam Lin on those premises. That’s also why Tam Lin is such a handy ballad to invert.

    DWJ knows that, and she introduces a prop: the Fairy King. In other words, the Queen cheated too! Leroy is the way out for Tom because he hurt him, both textually in the duel and in the context of the ballad. If he hadn’t, Tom couldn’t be a moral hero and Polly couldn’t operate the crucial change from holding on to letting go. And Tom is a moral hero; that’s the meaning of him saying “I did my best” at the end, and the interest of the character of Leslie, who has no morals and serves as a counterpoint.

    And how exactly does Polly rejects Tom? She tells him the exact truth; and that’s important, because their relationship previously had been based on fusing reality and imagination. DWJ has already said with Ivy and Laurel that that won’t work. At the end of the book, they leave the “nowhere” and the “here now?” and start to live in reality. They won't be swallowed up by imagination. That’s why book-reading fades away from the narration when Polly grows into adulthood. And thus Diana says: storytime is over, we have to go back to real life (hey! meta); if you want to be in love, keep your facts straight, and go beyond holding on to not clinging. But she never goes so far as to write that down; she hardly ever writes anything important explicitly. That frequently makes it seem like she abuses of deux ex machina, even when she doesn't, but it helps understanding her stories on a more intuitive level. I do think that Fire & Hemlock is satisfactorily ended.

    A last note: I'm amazed that she made the whole groom knows and raises his future bride since her childhood work for me because god do I hate that trope.

  • Amai

    One of the best and most incomprehensible books I've ever laid my eyes on. It makes my heart ache, physically, literally, it's so good it hurts. My long long LONG time favourite, Howl's Moving Castle, became a runner-up after I finished with Fire and Hemlock. It just really messes with my insides. I want to

    this book.

    Right after finishing the book I was just really frustrated – the ending made my face screw and I just had to throw the book god-knows-where (I'm sorry, Tom, the poor b

    One of the best and most incomprehensible books I've ever laid my eyes on. It makes my heart ache, physically, literally, it's so good it hurts. My long long LONG time favourite, Howl's Moving Castle, became a runner-up after I finished with Fire and Hemlock. It just really messes with my insides. I want to

    this book.

    Right after finishing the book I was just really frustrated – the ending made my face screw and I just had to throw the book god-knows-where (I'm sorry, Tom, the poor book was probably in great agony for the whole night) and curse myself to sleep. I went through such a load of feelings and emotions throughout the book, and in the end I felt like the tension was never truly released. Which makes this book, in my eyes, both unbearable and genius. In a way it reminds me of Laird Koenig's

    in that it makes you absolutely fall in love with the characters and you wish them all the best yet you can never be certain whether they got their happy ending because there's an eternal cliffhanger (don't we have a law against those?). Only this was a great, enormous load better.

    I was trembling by the time I got to part four. Like literally shaking all over and desperate.

    Now, despite the fact I've loved DWJ for years I've only read the Castle series and the Chrestomanci series before because I only recently got my hands on some other books of hers. But I'm kind of glad I only read it now. It's quite clear Fire and Hemlock is more mature compared to her more kiddie-ish novels. Much longer, much more complex and detailed, and much more relationship driven. I'm not saying kids couldn't enjoy it – I certainly would have, had I read it when I was younger – but personally, I think I benefitted from the perspective my age gave me over Polly's growth and character development.

    I loved Tom Lynn, and his relationship to Polly. I loved how incomplete and selfish Tom's feelings and motives towards Polly turned out to be. And how – in the end – perfectly and devotedly Polly still loved him. I loved the way Polly grew to him and good god! The frustration! I mean, I'm okay with age differences and lolita-ish material in literature (because, you know, fictional characters, no harm done) but this was so different from anything else I'd read! It wasn't just a few years, which would have made it into sweet little puppy love, which is cute. It wasn't exactly a perverse, unhealthy, unbalanced pedoesque "relationship", which would have made it interesting in a dark, sad way.

    No, it was too gentle, too okay, and too realistic for me to bear. It just felt like they were meant to go through all those stages and all those feelings. It was clear from the beginning there was going to be a romance between those two, but there was never anything wrong about it. Tom was always reasonable about it (except for the SILKEN BACK SMUT oh my god the scolding he gave her! The lady doth protest too much...) and Polly had the right to be a little unreasonable because, well, she was young and in a way very naïve. And I can't seem to go on about this subject, because my heart feels like it's about to break. Yes, I was utterly touched by their relationship and uh oh yeah alright. Wow. I just really don't get it why so many people saw it somehow creepy or gross, because there was never anything truly inappropriate going on, at least from Tom's side. It was just beautiful and so true and so desperately touching I almost lost it.

    Overall, I think Fire and Hemlock was one of the most rereadable books I've read, even compared to Diana's other novels which I've always loved rereading because I've felt like there's always something I didn't catch last time. This book was like Diana multiplied by ten. And after I felt like I really understood the ending, it became even better. It's just what I call absolute literary perfection. The essay at the end of the newest edition was also perfect. I felt like I was going to faint whilst reading it because of all the little details Diana included to sculpt it into absolute flawlessness.

    This book is

    . I want to give it way more than five stars.

  • Deborah O'Carroll

    (Review originally posted on The Page Dreamer:

    )

    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

    , it is “a wild, glimmering, shadowed, elusive kind of book.” That’s the best description

    (Review originally posted on The Page Dreamer:

    )

    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

    , 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

    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

    that one nourishes a distinct and startlingly-firm suspicion that the whole thing must have actually

    … 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

    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:

    And about fairy stories:

    )

    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. (

    ,

    , 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).

    (

    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

    , 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

    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

    understand, when it means there’s always more to unearth in subsequent go-throughs.

    It’s a book that you have to

    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

    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.)

  • Spencer Orey

    This book is wonderful! It's a cool remix of two old fairy stories in an 80s setting. It's also a coming of age story about a girl Polly who gets pulled into some magical drama because of a dude she meets when she accidentally crashes a funeral. If it's magic at all? There's a great tension around whether anything is really going on.

    It's also a story about surviving bad families. Polly's parents are haunting, great characters with depth that change in little ways.

    My one real negativ

    This book is wonderful! It's a cool remix of two old fairy stories in an 80s setting. It's also a coming of age story about a girl Polly who gets pulled into some magical drama because of a dude she meets when she accidentally crashes a funeral. If it's magic at all? There's a great tension around whether anything is really going on.

    It's also a story about surviving bad families. Polly's parents are haunting, great characters with depth that change in little ways.

    My one real negative is that one thing that didn't feel right was the romance. I like a good romance. In this one, there's an age difference that never feels quite right. I'm not sure how it landed at the time, but it felt pretty creepy to me in the here and now. Like plot wise it made enough sense but other than that, hm. Maybe if Polly had started the book much older? It definitely would feel very creepy in a book today! It isn't written to sound creepy. Yeah. I dunno about all that.

    Anyways. Some of the scenes with Polly and her family will really stick with me.

    It's one of those books that after reading it I was suddenly aware of some of its rippling influence (especially The Bone Clocks).

    Looking forward to reading a LOT more by Diana Wynn Jones! What are your favorites?

  • Kat Kennedy

    When I tried to think of a way to describe this book I kept having a GIF go through my head. One that I'd seen recently and felt summed up this novel perfectly:

    This novel is just so... damn uncomfortable. It's hard to pinpoint why it reminds me of two androgenous ballet dancers having a suspended representational sex/dance off while a Japanese man humps his way to oblivion, some things are just beyond the realm of human expression.

    The easy answer would be to yell, "Pervert!" and run screaming into the distance, qwoping alperfectly:[image

    When I tried to think of a way to describe this book I kept having a GIF go through my head. One that I'd seen recently and felt summed up this novel perfectly:

    This novel is just so... damn uncomfortable. It's hard to pinpoint why it reminds me of two androgenous ballet dancers having a suspended representational sex/dance off while a Japanese man humps his way to oblivion, some things are just beyond the realm of human expression.

    The easy answer would be to yell, "Pervert!" and run screaming into the distance, qwoping all the way. But it's not entirely that because Tom (a divorcee) and Polly (a ten year old girl who grows up as the story progresses) don't actually have a romance. At least, it's entirely one-sided for most the vast majority of the novel.

    Still, their friendship is uncomfortably coloured by the constant reminder that, yes, these two are going to be a couple.

    It's Wynne Jones, so naturally the writing is nothing to cry poor about. There is this rich, disjointed, mythical feel to the writing, even though it's set in a modernish time-setting.

    The characters were great but none of them were ever truly lovable. Even the ones who were meant to be lovable. In fact, the likable characters were some of the least fleshed-out characters in this book.

    Over all, it's a good book. I can't say that I'd ever read it again or remember it as fondly as I'll remember

    , but it's still a good book.

  • Mir

    I was disappointed in this when I was 10, but all my friends seem to have loved it so I gave it another try. It makes more sense now, although it is still rather confusing, especially the end. I enjoyed it this time around but it is still not among my favorite or even second-tier favorites of DWJ's books. There were just too many elements that didn't work for me. I didn't like Polly that much as a character, even though I thought her depiction was excellent. I liked the parts about reading and w

    I was disappointed in this when I was 10, but all my friends seem to have loved it so I gave it another try. It makes more sense now, although it is still rather confusing, especially the end. I enjoyed it this time around but it is still not among my favorite or even second-tier favorites of DWJ's books. There were just too many elements that didn't work for me. I didn't like Polly that much as a character, even though I thought her depiction was excellent. I liked the parts about reading and writing -- but then that sort of died away as Polly got older. In the end there were too many elements not adequately explained. But I'm the no-loose-ends type.

  • Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽

    Polly is a capable young woman who has lived a completely ordinary life. Or so she thinks, until one day she's cleaning out her old bedroom and starts to remember - in great detail; it takes up most of the book - a different life, a second set of memories revolving around a somewhat older man, Thomas Lynn, who had been her friend while she was a child, and with whom she shared some very strange, otherworldly experiences. Polly realized

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