19-year-old Polly is supposed to be packing, getting ready for another year of college, but she’s been reading instead. As she reads, she pauses and realizes a funny thing: though the cover on the book, which is similar to a picture that hangs above her bed, is familiar, she’s sure the book used to be called something different, and she’s sure that it used to contain different stories. She flips through it and can’t find half the stories she remembers having read in it, which makes her panic a bit: she wonders if she’s dreamed those other stories, or if, somehow, she has two sets of memories, like one of the characters in the book does. But this makes no sense: “Why,” she wonders, “should she suddenly have memories that did not seem to correspond with the facts?” (p 4). So she leaves the suitcase empty and tries to remember, thinking back to the pictures that hangs above her bed and how she came to have it. It started when Polly was ten, with a strange and dream-like adventure: Halloween, and too little sleep, and running through back gardens with a friend. Then, somehow, a funeral, and a game of make-believe with a friendly stranger, a man named Thomas Lynn.

I love the scene right before Polly meets Mr. Lynn, how it captures the way children play, while also capturing something not quite everyday, something odd:

Nina and Polly scrambled through garden after garden. Some were neat and open, and they sprinted through those, and some were overgrown, with hiding-places where they could lurk. One garden was full of washing, and they had to crouch behind flapping sheets while somebody took down a row of pants. They were on the edge of giggles the whole time, terrified that someone would catch them and yet, in a dreamlike way, almost sure they were safe. (p 11)

Without saying much more about the plot, there is so very much to like in this book, which has roots in the stories of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. There’s a great story-in-a-letter, early in the book, and indeed a whole often-epistolary friendship, and lots about storytelling, imagination, and heroism and choice. I like how, when Mr. Lynn gives Polly a book of fairy tales, she’s unimpressed, though he promises that each story “has a true, strange fact hidden in it, you know, which you can find if you look” (p 177). And there is lots of really pleasing writing, whether ordinarily/satisfyingly descriptive or thought-provoking/interesting thematically. Like: this made me grin, because you can so picture it: “Mr. Lynn lived in a very Londony house, with steps up to the door, regular windows, and a stack of bell-pushes beside the door” (p 70). Or mm, this bit, from when Polly’s in a school play: “she had a sudden sense, as she turned, that she was part of a transparent charmed pattern in which everything had to go in the one right way because that was the only way it could go. […] The pattern had been there always, even though they were all making it just at that moment” (pp 208-209).

I feel like I cannot properly express how good this book is: the plot is exciting and the end is wonderfully satisfying (like: can’t stop reading for the last 60ish pages) and the whole thing is just so well put together and well-described; all of it feels like a story very well told and well integrated: the ordinary school and home bits, Polly and her awful parents and her excellent grandmother and her various friends, and then also strange magical bits and sinister bits and adventure-y bits. And without saying too much about the end, how much do I love books that remind you that there isn’t just either/or, that there are other ways and other places, if you’re only looking for them? I love them lots, yes.

Diana Wynne Jones Week

Like Dogsbody, this is a book that was first recommended to me by Megan, though it was Jenny’s excellent Diana Wynne Jones Week that inspired me to finally get around to reading it. (Thank you both!)

Edited-to-add: PS: I was reading this book on the sidewalk in SoHo today (waiting for my boyfriend, who was browsing in a juggling store) when I overheard this guy on his cell phone saying, “I’m sipping some champagne,” which made me look up amusedly, because he was emphatically not sipping any champagne. He was standing on Broadway, and it was 90 degrees out, and he was drinking a VitaminWater. OK, maybe he was being metaphorical or it was a standing joke with whoever he was talking to, but I thought it was funny. I guess he saw me glance at him, and somehow thought that was an invitation to come talk. So he said, “Excuse me, what book is that?” and OK, that’s reasonably friendly and certainly non-threatening, so I found myself weirdly trying to explain this book to someone who probably does not know DWJ’s work and probably does not normally read kids’ books/YA. At one point I definitely said something about how (SPOILER ALERT, but not really if you know what Tam Lin is about) there are fairies in the book but they’re not, you know, little people, and he said something along the lines of, “so, uh, the fairies are, uh, like, fairies,” and I sort of looked puzzled and then my boyfriend came outside and I was very glad. The end.

5 Responses to “Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2002 (Originally 1985)”

  1. Thomas Says:

    Excellent post, Heather, and I’m glad you liked this book. I’ve always wanted to turn this book into a TV drama, or radio or something – I think th e story is too big for a film.

    You should have a read of my friend Jane’s post/essay about the book: http://twosidestonowhere.blogspot.com/2007/11/introducing-two-sides-bookblogs-1-fire.html

  2. Jenny Says:

    You’re welcome! I’m thrilled that my week has gotten people to read Fire and Hemlock, because I absolutely love it. For a book with such a lot of fantasy elements, it manages to be extremely true to life in the non-fantasy bits.

  3. Giveaway winners; and links rounded up, part 2 « Jenny's Books Says:

    […] of letters and sodas loved Fire and Hemlock (yay!) (yay!) (yay!), particularly the way that it integrated real regular life and what Polly and […]

  4. Mumsy Says:

    I like this review! Did you find it interesting (as I did) that Polly’s grandmother was so excellent when Polly’s parents were so worthless? WTH? Like you, I loved the letter bits, and Polly’s hero-stories.

  5. Heather Says:

    Thomas, thanks, and yes, such a good book – and thanks for the link to your friend’s post; I read it and enjoyed it.

    Jenny’s Mumsy – thanks, and yes, interesting that Polly’s grandmother was so excellent while her parent’s weren’t! I liked that she was a relate-able adult who wasn’t perfect but was good.

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