“Fire and Hemlock” – Diana Wynne Jones’ Style of a Gothic Romance

Book Review : Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Spoiler Alert!

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.

About Tales Untangled

I am a mother of four children and have a passion for reading. I love sharing my treasury of books with my kids. I also do experiments in cooking which includes such things as Indian Tandoori Chicken slow-cooked in a tagine. I write stories and illustrate in ink.
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4 Responses to “Fire and Hemlock” – Diana Wynne Jones’ Style of a Gothic Romance

  1. Jhssapphire says:

    I loved your review on Fire and Hemlock! I first read DWJ when I was in high school and it was love at first “book”. Fire and Hemlock was not a big time favorite but the influence stays. It sparks my interest in Celtic faeries mythologies and inspired me to write a short fiction-essay of my own. I think the description of it as gothic is apt as the feeling the whole novel emits was the word gothic itself: darkish, mysterious and skin-prickling uncomfortable, yet it is so wonderful ( or should I say, eerily ) engaging that it haunts you. I would love to get hold of it in my collection ( preferably the HarperCollins version) one day but first I need to find her Dalemark Quartets.

    • As I read some of the currently popular authors I long for the quality that Diana Wynne Jones provides in her writing. Have you read Catherine Fisher’s “Incarceron”? I wonder what you think of her as an author. Thanks so much for your comment.

      • Jhssapphire says:

        It saddens me to find that I no longer get that much thrill from reading nowadays. Perhaps it is as you mention, most authors certainly doesn’t provide the quality DWJ had in her works. I have not read the mentioned book but will certainly find the chance to read it, since the recommendation. Personally I enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s ” The Thirteenth Tale”. Have you read it? It reduced me into the feverishly excited child that stayed up all night just to get to the ending. I hope you might enjoyed it.

      • I haven’t read “The Thirteenth Tale”, I will check into it. Thanks for the recommendation.

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