Fire and Hemlock is possibly Diana Wynne Jones’ most complex and subtle novel, and it’s certainly not for the younger readers who’ve enjoyed her most famous work, the Chrestomanci novels. It is most basically described as a retelling of the Tam Lin/Thomas the Rhymer ballads, set in 1980’s England over a nine-year period. Needless to say, it is dense and complicated, filled with hidden meaning, metaphor and symbolism where two threads of life are wound together to make an intricate whole.
Told predominantly in flashback sequences, we begin when nineteen-year-old Polly Whittacker is packing to go to college when her memory begins to stir. Her recollections of a book and a picture on the wall are not as she remembers them, and only when she concentrates and really begins to think does she realize that she seems to have two sets of memories — one of a mundane school life, and one that is filled with the mysterious and supernatural: all centered around a man named Tom Lynn.
She begins to re-follow this thread of her life, beginning with her meeting with Tom Lynn when she accidentally joins a funeral at the grand Hunsdon House held by the strange Leroy family. Pursuing the strange friendship, Polly and Tom make up stories where they exist as superheroes named Tom Piper and Hero and meet many times to discuss this sense of reality they dub “Nowhere.” But something strange begins to happen — these stories of theirs have a way of becoming true, and it all seems to have something to do with Tom’s sinister ex-wife Laurel and her designs for Tom and Polly.
Throughout this, however, Polly also must deal with the somewhat crazy exploits of her school-friend Nina and the selfish actions of her divorcee parents: the negligence of her father and the utter self-delusion of her mother who blames everybody but herself for her problems. She also has the attention of two young boys — the sulky Sebastian and the roughish Leslie, both of whom have links to the Leroy family and their grim family heritage.
To get the most out of Fire and Hemlock, you must be a patient and careful reader – I’d even go so far as to say it’s necessary to read the book twice to fully understand it. There are so many details and plot threads that it’s difficult to keep track of them all, especially when you consider all the action is melded with a different set of memories that Polly must sort out in her mind as the book goes on (not counting the range of stories that she and Tom make up!).
As usual, the characters are wonderfully and vividly created and interact realistically with each other. Polly’s grandmother in particular is a woman worth knowing, but the flamboyant Nina, the sullen Sebastian and the sad, haunted Tom are also beautifully presented. However, the one character I couldn’t really warm up to was Polly herself — for reasons more instinctive than reasonable, I just couldn’t really like her that much, and I’m afraid I’m not really sure why.
Fire and Hemlock is also the author’s most descriptive book — usually she doesn’t bother too much with details, but in this case she takes the time to carefully lay the setting, resulting in an evocative and interesting atmosphere whether it be the spookiness of Hunsdon House or the sterile cleanness of Polly’s father’s apartment.
The main problem with this book is that it is incredibly complicated: even after three reads I’m still a little baffled as to how and why certain things happened — the last chapter in particular is very ambiguous and unsatisfactory in its wrap up concerning Polly and her relationships with the other characters. Although she does explain certain mysteries, they are usual explained in just a few sentences that are easy to miss or not understand properly. This is rather frustrating since it’s a beautiful novel that deserves to be savored and understood — yet it’s extremely difficult to do just this thanks to the lack of cohesiveness.
As a side note, this novel along with Howl’s Moving Castle are Diana Wynne Jones’ favorite works — with that in mind it pays to read it carefully. All in all, it is one of DWJ’s most challenging books, but ultimately one of the most intelligent, intriguing and rewarding.
With a sudden flash, college-aged Polly remembers her old friend Thomas Lynn, and realizes it’s been years since she thought of him. It’s almost like he’s been erased from her memory, she thinks. Strange, since as she delves deeper into her memories, he turns out to have been her best friend, and the one bright spot in a very difficult adolescence.
Trying to solve the mystery of why he has vanished from her life, she asks around, only to find that none of her friends or family remember him either — they think Thomas was an imaginary friend she made up. Was he? Or has something else happened? And if he is real, where has he gone?
Diana Wynne Jones draws us into her spell with this novel, never letting us put it down. The story gets more and more intricate as is progresses, making less and less sense, and we are captivated, unable to turn away until we know what’s going on. An excellent book, complex and moving. Heaps of stars.