Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones

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!

other blog reviews:
Geranium's Cat

Got any more?please, let me know, I'd be glad to add it to the list!


Lightheaded said...

--> Easily and gently, her writing lulls you into the characters' world and without even realising it, it conquers your complete attention.

This is so true!

I'm glad that you loved this book! Certainly worth the time spent musing over Polly and Thomas' adventures. Thank you also for featuring the link to the essay which is an interesting read indeed.

Jodie Robson said...

Thank you for the link to the essay, which I hadn't seen before. There is a very good site at which has lots of interesting resources for understanding the ballads, comparing versions and so on. I love books which make me want to research their background so, although I learnt the ballads at school, I found Fire and Hemlock really satisfying.

Ana S. said...

Lovely review, Valentina! You perfectly expressed just why I love this book so much. It's complex and it's human and it's beautiful, but above all it's a good story, and it can be enjoyed for that alone. While some books are nothing but complexities and layers and intertextual references and whatnot, this one has them, but they are an added bonus. Diana Wynne Jones never forgot that first of all she was telling a story.

valentina said...

Lightheaded, you're welcome, glad it was useful:)

geraniumcat, thanks for the link, I need to do some exploring now!

Nymeth, that's true, and it mustn't have been easy to tell a good story knowing all the things she wanted to fit it and the structure she was following. I must read more of Diana Wynne Jones!

Jill said...

I have been meaning to reread this book - I have vague memories of it, but I do remember quite vividly that the end of it completely astonished me, and that I had to sit there and re-think the entire book in the context of that new information. Thanks for including the link to the essay. I'm going to reread this one, then read the essay. Great review!

Unknown said...

Hi Valentina, I also enjoyed this book immensly; not being anything near an English native reader I had to read it over quite a few times before it all became clear, which was not a bore at all. It contains a few loose ends, but that's Wynne Jones, and there is nothing wrong with a few loose ends- especially since the book is very richly filled with hints & metaphors and is very satisfyingly tied up in general, that is, if and when you finally get it :). I like what you say about this book and I will be reading more of your blog. Bye!

valentina said...

Darla, sorry I missed your comment completely! I will re-read it one day too and hopefully I'll grasp all the different layers of meanings :)

Anna, thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you enjoyed the book and my review. I'm not a native English speaker either, so I know what you mean:P