It took me ages to review Fire and Hemlock. I just didn't feel ready. I loved it, but I wasn't sure what to say about it because the book lost me completely towards the end, and it almost gave me a headache. So, how can you say you enjoyed a book, if it gave you a headache, you might ask? Well, first of all, I loved it immensely till the last 50 pages, more or less. Then I kept reading but I had no clue what was going on. That was partly due to my ignorance. If I knew a little about the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin it would have helped really a lot. So, my advice to those who haven't read it: Don't be scared, but do a bit of homework first. It'll be worth it.
The book tells the story of Polly, who, at 19 years old, realises that something is missing from her memories. Something very important that a picture called "Fire and Hemlock" suddenly brings back to her mind, after many years. Going back to when she was 10, Polly starts remembering about that day when she gate-crashed a funeral at that big mansion, near her grand-mother's house. There she had met Tom Lynn, and together they had slowly started something quite extraordinary. Then she had done something terrible, and Tom had disappeared from her life.
The narration starts almost at the end, and goes backwards to tell how Polly met Tom, and how their friendships created a whole sets of adventures while interfering with long established other-wordly recurrencies...
What I found most compelling about this story is that it's not fast-paced like so many fantasies for children. I think some writers think that kids today are too hyperactive, therefore they need to keep their focus constantly by adding one action scene after the other. But this superfast rhythm leaves no space for actually savouring the characters, finding a cosy place beside their lives and getting attached to them so that you never want to leave them. Which is exactly what Diana Wynne Jones does in this book. Easily and gently, her writing lulls you into the characters' world and without even realising it, it conquers your complete attention.
The story follows Polly growing from childhood into adolescence, showing her difficult relationship with her impossibly selfish mother and her absent father, her school activities and her normal day-to-day life. Her adventures are always linked with the real world, and often the magical happens in subtle ways. It's not a green-lights-flashing from-the-sky sort of magic. But it's there, and it gets more and more real by the page.
After all Diana Wynne Jones herself stated: what I wanted to do really was to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate.Exactly what I meant to say, but better.
Her relationship with Tom is beautiful and complicated. At the beginning it feels a bit uncomfortable. After all she is only 10 and he is much older, although it's never properly specified. But after a while it just becomes part of the story. Tom is great fun, playing along Polly and making up their hero stories through their letters. And Polly has all the freshness and wild imagination of childhood. I love the fact that Tom sends books to Polly. It has an important meaning to the story, but it also shows Jones's literary loves: The Golden Bough, Lord of the Rings, The three musketeers, The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe, The Sword in the stone, Five Children and it,The Wizard of Oz, etc...
Then as Polly grows older the relationships starts to take a different, but I'd say, inevitable course, and that's when everything changes.
There's so much in this book, a review is not enough. It's literally packed with references, and it's so well structured is astonishing. Everything is there for a reason, everything means something, although I couldn't quite tell you what.
Nymeth has kindly directed me towards an essay that the writer wrote about this book, which I found extremely exciting.
You see, I've done literature in college, where you had to read essays after essays of people speculating on other people's writing. But here I had the actual writer analising her work just like a scholar! Exactly like it. Saying "this was there because I wanted to represent this and that"or "Polly's name means this and that" or even "The whole book's pattern refers to this other book...".
So much for just a story for children.
But don't be put off. Yes, it's complicated. Yes, it has many layers. But it can also be enjoyed just for the story, without knowing much about anything else. It still is completely gripping.
It's a fantasy story with a true heroine, smart and brave, who ultimately fights to win her love. A must read.
ps: here is the link to the essay, scroll down till the end of the page. It's easier to read if you print it. But DON'T read it before the book, it contains MAJOR spoilers!
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