Book Review : Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Polly Whittacker is back at her granny’s house and while looking at the picture ‘Fire and Hemlock’ realizes that she seems to have two conflicting sets of memories. In one set of memories her life is quite normal, but in the other she begins to recollect a friendship with a cellist. She wonders if he even exists.
Polly was staying with her granny as a child when she and her friend, Nina, have dressed up on Halloween and prowl through the neighborhood. While upon this escapade Polly enters a mansion where there has been a funeral and meets Tom Lynn. Over the years Mr. Lynn sends her presents and books and they occasionally have the opportunity to visit. Oddly, as they play their game of being heroes their imagined situations seem to come true, after a fashion.
As Polly tries to reconcile the parallel events in her mind she concludes that she somehow lost her memories and needs to find the truth. With this discovery she determines that she has to know if Tom is real and if he is real, she must save him.
Adult Point of View
I hadn’t read a Diana Wynne Jones in several years and thought Fire and Hemlock, originally published in 1985, looked intriguing. I thought it might be a gothic romance based upon the book flap description and would interest my teenager while hopefully being a better novel than Twilight and the many other new gothic novels.
From the very beginning Polly’s world was skewed. I loved how things didn’t even fully make sense because we, as the reader, are following exactly in Polly’s mind without an omniscient presence guiding us to facts that Polly herself does not know. Everything in Fire and Hemlock is very odd.
The book is divided into sections primarily based on a play of words from carved stone vases at the mansion, Now Here, Where Now, and Nowhere. The actual words written on the vases are nowhere, but as they rotate only a portion is visible on each vase creating these three statements. I thought it was a wonderful use of language to display the time sequence of Polly’s world.
Jones also uses lyrical quotes from Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer to give us hints about what is happening. I was not familiar with either of these Scottish characters and so I didn’t know which direction the story was going to take.
Tom Lynn also provides clues to the strange events that he finds himself in with Polly, whose alter-ego name is Hero, by sending her books. At one point Mr. Lynn writes, “Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories. Each one has a true, strange fact in it, you know, which you can find if you look.” I knew this was a big clue and still didn’t feel secure to guess the outcome.
I would classify Fire and Hemlock as a gothic romance because of the supernatural events, the foreboading mansion, the mysterious men, that Mr. Lynn can only be saved by Polly, who is pure and innocent. Interestingly I would classifly Tom Lynn as the anti-Byronic hero because he seems to be weak and is led by Polly, he does not have an internal demon that must be conquored, but rather an exterior demon. Mr. Lynn is comforting rather than raging, mysterious but not in a dark way. Ultimantely we learn that Tom Lynn does love Polly and hopes that she can save him from the evil wiles of Laurel.
I was intrigued from the beginning to the end, though I will say Fire and Hemlock has a slower pacing than more recent novels. The complexity of thought in a young adult novel was refreshing and the styling was fully unique. I would recommend this novel to accomplished female readers.
4 out of 5 stars
– the Mother
Teen Point of View
Unfortunately I cannot convince my own teen to give it a try. She says she thought it looked weird. I should have told her not to read it and then she probably would have picked it up.