Review: Fire and Hemlock

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Firebird, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). Reissue 2012. Original publication date: 1985 (Greenwillow Books). Personal copy. Part of the Diana Wynne Jones Blog Tour. The Celebrate Diana Wynne Jones Tumblr. The full tour schedule.

The Plot: Polly Whittacker, 19, is packing for college when she begins to read a book that she thought she had already read. Only the stories are different — something is missing — it doesn’t seem quite right. One of the stories, one of the ones she remembers, is about a man with two sets of memories.

Polly realizes that her memories don’t match up with facts, and begins to recover memories. Memories of a man named Thomas Lynn. Memories of danger from the wealthy Leroy family. People that she thought she’d just met, she’d known for years. Things had happened — unbelievable, fantastical things — that she didn’t remember. People, places, and things come back from age 10, 11, and onward. Thomas Lynn was in danger. The dual memories stop at fifteen.

What did she do that erased Thomas Lynn from her memory? Is it too late to save him?

(Problem: I don’t want to go too much into the plot. Because part of the greatness of Fire and Hemlock is discovering, with Polly, what happened.)

The Good: I’d read Fire and Hemlock before; but wow, I so enjoyed rereading it. Writing this review is hard for two reasons: first, because I kept getting swept into the story and forgetting to take notes to write up a review; and second, because how can anyone else’s words do justice for Diana Wynne Jones?

The layers to Fire and Hemlock, oh the layers. I’m not talking the obvious: the two sets of memories. It’s also that Polly is telling the story, a nineteen year old Polly, but she goes back to herself from age ten onward. What Polly knows and understands, what she doesn’t,  is all filtered through the experience of a child and, later, a young teen.

The complexity is not just the memories, but also Polly and Tom’s lives and the stories being told. There is, of course, as Polly eventually realizes herself, the Tam Lin/ Thomas the Rhymer story, of the young man seduced by and then sacrificed by the Fairy Queen and the young woman who saves him. Even that is not simple, because Tom’s story is his own, not that of prior loves or consorts, just as Polly is her own person, not a reincarnation of Tam Lin’s Janet.

As Garth Nix points out in his Introduction to the 2012 edition, Fire and Hemlock is many stories, not just a fantasy about a young man and the Fairy Queen. As the years tick by to the time when the next tithe is due — in other words, to Tom’s death-date —  life is happening.

There is, for instance, the family story: Polly’s parents divorce, at a time and a place (late 70s/early 80s) when this still causes neighbors and classmates to whisper “broken home” both behind her back and to her face. Even without fairy interference, Polly’s family story is a standalone: a spoiled, charming father, a mother whose attempts to hold love close sends it away; a grandmother who recognizes the harm her parenting did and resolves to do better by her granddaughter than she did by her son. No Fairy Queen influence, yet both Ivy (Polly’s mother) and Joanna (her father’s girlfriend/second wife) are mortal, normal versions of the Fairy Queen in how they treat the men in their lives. Joanna steals Reg away from his family and hometown, and his new life is one of following her rules. Ivy’s relationships self-destruct periodically, as she keeps looking for the new man who will not disappoint her. 

Each thread that weaves together to tell this tale can be so examined: Polly’s school years (“[That first day] seems to go on forever, and it is full of strangeness, and the next day you seem to have been there always“), her friendships, her literary education via the books that Thomas Lynn gives her, etc, etc. What DWJ does brilliantly is that these various threads work together seamlessly and are perfectly balanced. Remove one aspect, and the story would unravel.

Many current fairy stories create an actual fairy world for the main character to visit; or, a full exploration and explanation of how magic/fairy works is given.

Fire and Hemlock tells us only what Polly knows, only what she understands, figures out, and remembers. Polly never moves into the fairy world, and her interactions with the fairy folk are almost no different than meeting with very wealthy, privileged people: multiple homes, private schools, a touch of disdain for the great unwashed. There are just a handful of phrases to tell her something more is happening: for example, a recognition of Polly not eating or drinking when in the home of the Fairy Queen. The magic is light at first, so slight that one may say it’s only coincidence or an overly romantic world view, not fantasy at all. Slowly, though, the frequency and danger escalate until the magic cannot be denied: not by the reader, not by Polly. At times, I almost forgot this was a fantasy until, like Polly, I was reminded violently of the power of the fairy Leroys and pulled back in.

Tom gives Polly gifts as she grows up –books. Let me back up: Tom is an adult, Polly a child when they first meet. Together, they tell stories: she as a child playing make believe, he as an adult happy for the escape from his troubles.  How and when the adult-Tom realizes the child-Polly may rescue him is murky, as is the point when he stops seeing her as a child. His choice of books to send is at first harmless, in that they are the books one would send a child. Later, though, he sends books to give her hints of what is really happening, clues she doesn’t understand. Has anyone done a Fire and Hemlock book challenge, to read all the books mentioned? Part of the joy of the book is the literary references, beyond the obvious Tam Lin. Another level of joy is just how important story is to the lives of Tom and Polly and others: literally stories, but also in how memories and perspectives shape us and how we see the world.

“As you know, Polly” is a bit of info dumping that never happens. (I have an ebook version, so I was able to quickly confirm this!) Never. We are with Polly at 10, 11, 12, figuring out and learning as she does. Some things the reader never truly learns. I wish other authors would have so much faith in their audience: every. little. thing. does not have to be told, explained, shared. It’s enough to know, as here, that a full world exist: the entire wikipedia entry for such a world does not have to be shared. All that matters for this story is told, and that is enough.

In my memory, Fire and Hemlock was a “long” book. It contains so much; it shows Polly from ages 10 to 19; nine years of double memories; it has to be “long.” It’s not, or, rather, not by today’s standards. The formatting on my ebook has Fire and Hemlock clock in at just under 300 pages. (It also contains an Introduction, a text of a speech by DWJ, and a sample chapter from another DWJ book). By today’s standards, it’s on the “short” side!

I’m not surprised that Colleen at Chasing Ray also adores Fire and Hemlock: “[Polly] is Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy and stubborn in the best way that Mary Lennox could be. She had moments of Buffy-like toughness and Rory Gilmore-like steadfastness and she is Meg Murray when she faces down IT.” I wish I’d said that. Also, her review at Bookslut.

Because reading this book was such a magical experience. Because the fantasy was so realistically woven into the real world. Because it’s a classic coming of age story. Because it’s a book that acknowledges the power of words and story. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

13 thoughts on “Review: Fire and Hemlock

  1. Eek, I can’t bear to admit this, but I’ve never read a DWJ book (adoring the Miyazaki version of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE doesn’t count). I love the sound of the layers in this book — I am such a sucker for layers — is it the best one to introduce me to her work in your opinion?


  2. I need to read more DWJ. I’ve only read the 3 from the Moving Castle series. I do like the movie, but the book is so much better (Elizabeth, read it! I implore you! It’s so different!)
    Thanks to you, Liz, I have now just requested a copy of Fire and Hemlock from my library. Yay!


  3. Elizabeth, I’m jealous because you get to experience that “oh wow” feeling once you do read her! Why not HOWL? (Note to self: must read it also!)

    Lindsay: Yay, let me know how you like it.


  4. “Some things the reader never truly learns. I wish other authors would have so much faith in their audience: every. little. thing. does not have to be told, explained, shared. It’s enough to know, as here, that a full world exist: the entire wikipedia entry for such a world does not have to be shared. All that matters for this story is told, and that is enough.”

    YES!!!! This pretty much sums up all that I love about the way DWJ writes and it stands out so clear in this book. I loved this review. You did a wonderful job highlighting a truly complex book.


  5. Elizabeth, I only recently got introducted to DWJ and Fire and Hemlock was the first one I tried. I counted myself as a fan from that day on, so I’d say it’s a fine place to start!

    Liz, I had a feeling this would make a great reread – I can’t wait to give it another go.


  6. OH–I never figured that out, about the parallel between the Fairy Queen and the other women in Polly’s life! !!! Thanks, that’s fascinating!

    And I love the idea of a Fire and Hemlock reading challenge. If I didn’t have so many other reading I wanted to do right now, I’d be all over that…


  7. “All that matters for this story is told, and that is enough.”


    I carried around this book last night, in paperback form, and received many envious glances over the new cover. I am hoping to do an entire DWJ reread – in order – this summer… but this one is tempting me and calling me to read it first. I loved it the first time, for sure!


  8. Lovely review for one of my favorite books! I have a thing for Tam Lin retellings anyway, and Diana Wynne Jones is (as we know) pure genius. I love the eeriness of it, and the way the whole thing feels like a dream and at the same time almost sharply clear. And Polly–Colleen hit it right on the nose.


  9. Elizabeth, your comment could have been written by me! To remedy this gap, I’d picked up a copy* of Fire and Hemlock from the library a couple of days ago. After reading your review, Liz, it’s moved up in the stack to 3rd – right after my current book and after Mare’s War. Will report back after I’ve read it.

    *alas without the cool new cover and Garth Nix intro


  10. Cheryl, I know — if I had free time I’d put a challenge together.

    tanita, my next DWJ will be something new. haven’t figured out what yet…

    Maureen, thanks! And yes: the dream yet clear.

    Eliza, let us know what you think!


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