Skip to content

Book: Fire and Hemlock

March 11, 2011

This was my first semi-adult Diana Wynne Jones book. The Time of the Ghost seems written for a teen audience, and the Chrestomanci books are definitely for, say, 9-12 year olds — Fire and Hemlock felt youngish, but definitely appropriate for a adult reader as well. I am not sure why I puzzled over what age group this book was written for, except maybe perhaps because it worked on so many levels. As just a straight-up good read for anybody: yes. As a coming-of-age story for teens: yep. As a terrific retelling of the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer stories, for folklore-lovers: uh-huh. I wasn’t sure what to expect when reading this, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from each page turned — not at all predictable, this one. Except maybe if you are a Tam Lin scholar, which I am not.

I am not really even sure how to describe the book. Polly, age 19, is packing for college. She looks at her old framed photograph, titled Fire and Hemlock, and suddenly realizes that she has two sets of memories from the past 8-9 years or so. One in which she is an ordinary schoolgirl, with ordinary memories. And the other, hidden set of memories, in which she is friends with the musician Thomas Lynn, and the two of them have many mysterious and dangerous adventures. How could she have forgotten these events? How could she have forgotten Thomas? What really happened?

We go back in time, to the day when Polly met Thomas at a funeral she accidentally snuck into as a young girl. Thomas Lynn guides her out of the funeral and befriends her. The older man (we are not sure how old he is — at first he seems very old, but later on we realize he must be only in his 20s or so) seems to find Polly amusing. They start an acquaintance; a friendship. They become pen pals, of a sort. They make up elaborate stories together, about their fictional alter egos: Hero and Tan Coul.

They discover a mysterious thing: whatever they make up together and agree upon, becomes true, in one way or another. These things do not always bode well. Usually they get Thomas and Polly into further scrapes. However, there does seem to be some kind of magical consequences to the stories they make up.

Another thing: the family whose funeral Polly crashed, does not want them to be friends. Bad things start to happen whenever Polly sees Thomas, or even communicates with him. They must come up with clever ways to circumvent the family, who somehow is able to keep tabs on the two.

But why? And what is up with this weird friendship anyway? What exactly does Thomas want from Polly? Is this even okay? Is Thomas good or bad?

So many questions. And at the end of the book: so many questions! I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t read it, but seriously, WTF? I was puzzled by it in all kinds of ways. Not exactly unhappy with it, but really puzzled. I felt like some of this book was over my head, bizarrely. I might have to re-read it someday and try to understand it more. It feels like there is much more story here than first meets the eye.

Another very interesting (and somewhat over-my-head) discussion about the ending is here. Very interesting if you have read the book and puzzled over the ending, as I did.

Anyway. I am now firmly under the spell of Diana Wynne Jones. I loved this book, even though parts of it deeply puzzled me. Polly’s parents are truly awful parents. I don’t know why I felt that was so satisfactory, but I did. I like characters that are complex and deeply flawed, and who are not “saved” by the authors by giving them any “outs” for their bad behavior. Sometimes people just suck, and I appreciate that in a book character. Her mother is selfish, neurotic, depressed and really a terrible parent. Her dad is vague, untrustworthy, charming and ultimately also a terrible, terrible parent, shockingly neglectful. The ultimate climax of their terrible parenting comes midway through the book, and I almost cried for Polly. So cruel and neglectful, from “people” who you wouldn’t think would do this to their child. I wonder how many kids end up in a similar situation. All I can say is, thank goodness for grandmothers.

The more I think about this book, the more it moves me and I want to read it again, actually. However, I am midway through Harriet The Spy, which is taking me a really long time to read because I am so exhausted I can only barely get through one chapter before I fall asleep, so I’m just plodding. But I’ll finish it up this weekend and then, moving on, to To Kill a Mockingbird, which I am soooo looking forward to. In the meantime, tomato sandwiches and secret notebooks for me!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2011 1:43 am

    yay yay yay! This is one of my very very very very very favourites. Your post totally made my day 😀

    • March 12, 2011 8:54 am

      Oh yay!! Yes, I loved it. I wish you were here so we could go over the ending and everything. This book was jam-packed with excellence, yes?

  2. trapunto permalink
    March 12, 2011 11:04 am

    It took me a second reading to make anything of this book. The first time I was confused but entranced. Reading it aloud slowed me down enough that I was able to connect the dots better (or dots isn’t a very good comparison, because I think the way Jones’ writes it’s not just ONE picture you’re allowed to find), and then Der Mann and I spent a lot of time talking about the ending, and that was fun. Now it is one of my favorite’s of Jones’.

    • March 12, 2011 11:42 am

      I really actually do want to read it again — maybe next year. I agree — there’s not just ONE storyline or “point” you are supposed to get with her books. That makes them extra wonderful, in my opinion!

  3. March 14, 2011 9:13 am

    This sounds like the kind of book I ate up when I was a kid. What fun! Hope you got to To Kill a Mockingbird over the weekend!

  4. March 14, 2011 1:47 pm

    it sounds like this book really did it for you. i love that!

    i like how you linked to the discussion about the ending. whenever i finish a book i like to find out what other people thought of it and sometimes i get a chuckle about how engrossed in a book people can be. when i finished Winters Bone there were a few minor things i was unsure of. i looked them up only to come across this giant essay written by a gal. she had all these quotes from the book, things i didnt even remember. i was so impressed with how she had completely lost herself in the book.

    • March 14, 2011 8:19 pm

      I know, don’t you love other people’s book reviews? If a book really intrigues me, I always want to know what other people thought of it. There are some really excellent reviews out there. So many ways to interpret a book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s