fire and hemlock

Monday, May 14, 2012 |
Diana Wynne Jones had a gift for writing books that you can’t put down, that show you the truth about humans (they aren’t always noble, for instance!), and that manage to make you believe in magic for whole blocks of time altogether.  I count some of her novels (The Merlin Conspiracy and Howl’s Moving Castle, in particular) among my most favorite of books.  They’re ones I’ll read again and again, and pick up purely for comfort.

All that said, I haven’t read every book in her backlist.  And one of the books I hadn’t read until just last week was Fire and Hemlock.  I was prompted to order this title by Kristen M. of We Be Reading.  She assured me that it was good (not like I need much pushing with DWJ!), and so I placed the reprint on pre-order and got ready for what was sure to be something wonderful and strange.
fire and hemlock by diana wynne jones book cover
Polly has two sets of memories...

One is normal: school, home, friends. The other, stranger memories begin nine years ago, when she was ten and gate-crashed an odd funeral in the mansion near her grandmother's house. Polly's just beginning to recall the sometimes marvelous, sometimes frightening adventures she embarked on with Tom Lynn after that. And then she did something terrible, and everything changed.

But what did she do? Why can't she remember? Polly
must uncover the secret, or her true love – and perhaps Polly herself – will be lost.

Fire and Hemlock is the story of a girl named Polly, who while home from college one break realizes that she has two sets of parallel memories, and one set has been completely laid over top of the other.  The book is about Polly’s teasing out of this mystery, and finding herself, her family and her place in life in the bargain.  It is vague in parts, and the reader must puzzle through it with Polly, as if assembling lost pieces of history.  What results is a somewhat baffling dénouement that will (I am certain) be different each time I reread it.

Fire and Hemlock is not as overtly magical as most of Diana Wynne Jones’ books (though when is the ‘magic’ in her books ever really overt?).  Instead, its fantasy is in its framework, as a reinvention of the fairy tales of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer.  I am not extremely familiar with either – that’s one part of my fairy tale education that is missing, and which I intend to fix posthaste.

Yes, yes, but what did I think of it?  I am not sure.  There’s always something strange and mystical and usually lovable about DWJ’s books, but they aren’t comfortable by any stretch of the imagination.  The hero (or in this case, heroine) is truly challenged by his/her circumstances, by happenstance, by fate and outside power and things beyond control.  What I do know is that I liked Polly, and her grandmother, and even Tom Lynn (maybe not all together, though), and I hope to never be satisfied with Fire and Hemlock, but always to try to find unique stories in it.

Recommended for: fans of Diana Wynne Jones’ canon, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, the Chris Nolan film Inception, and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose.  It is for the reader with the time and patience to puzzle over stray bits of story, to pay attention to coincidences, and to come to a conclusion that the world is really quite fey.

4 comments:

Ryan said...

I've never read her work before, though I am familiar with it. I must admit to being a little intriuged by the sound of this one. Thanks for the review.

Erica said...

I hadn't heard of this one before, but I love the cover for this one - it is gorgeous!

abookandashortlatte said...

I read this a week or so ago and was also unsure what to make of it. I think I liked it, but I definitely didn't love it. To be honest, I haven't outright loved any of her books since besides Howl, and that was the first I read. I'm still making a conscious effort to read further into her backlist though.

Kristen M. said...

Sorry for the super late comment! I honestly think you will like this one more on reread -- I sure did. On first read it's dark and complex and way different from DWJ's lighter fare. But on reread, you see so much more of her personality and themes in it and you understand a bit more of the relationships that she set up. There's still plenty that's confusing in it but it grows on you. :)

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