One of the great sorrows of my reading life is that I had no one directing my reading much when I was a child. I was a big reader, and I read some good books, but I rarely ventured beyond popular contemporary fiction (Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary); series fiction (Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Little House books); and fairly recent Newbery Award winners (Dicey’s Song, Jacob Have I Loved ). These were mostly popular books that I found on my own. This means that there are huge gaps in my childhood reading, and Diana Wynne Jones falls into one of those gaps. It also means that I was utterly charmed when the central character in Fire and Hemlock, Polly, begins receiving gifts of great children’s books from her mysterious older friend Thomas Lynn.
The book begins when Polly is 19 and getting ready to return for a semester at Oxford. As she packs her things, she starts to look back and realizes that her memories have gone a little fuzzy. One of her books doesn’t contain the stories she remembered, and the picture on her wall looks different from how she thought. It’s as if she has two sets of memories. When did this doubling begin? As Polly looks back, she realizes that the doubling started when she was about 10 years old, on the day she met Thomas Lynn. The bulk of the book is the story of that friendship.
I had thought of Diana Wynne Jones only as a fantasy author, and what struck me about this book is how much of it is grounded totally in real-life drama. Aside from the double memory, which readers could easily forget after the first chapter, the first half of the book contains hardly any fantasy at all, unless you count the stories of adventure that Polly and Mr. Lynn make up together.
And, oh, the real-life drama is so well-done! Polly’s parents are divorcing as the book begins, and the dynamics are so raw and real. Polly happens to be about the age I was when my parents divorced, and everything about it rang true to me—although lucky for me, my parents were never as infuriating as Polly’s parents. It’s actually Polly’s responses to her parents’ strange behavior that resonated with me. I might have been a hair past needing it when this book was published, but I do wish someone had put it in my hands back then. I could go on and on about the other things Jones gets right: the ways friendships among adolescent girls shift and change, teenage crushes and jealousy, the process of figuring out what you’re good at.
The book and writing talk was equally exciting. Mr. Lynn sends Polly so many books that I wish I had read at her age (and some I have yet to get to). And the book is full of letters! (I do love an epistolary novel.) These letters are particularly wonderful because they are totally unpolished. Polly’s spelling is abominable and Mr. Lynn can’t type at all! Such fun!
The real-life elements took me by surprise, but I also enjoyed the slow creeping of the supernatural into the story. Early on, it’s in the form of coincidence. A town with a hardware store just like the one in Polly and Mr. Lynn’s story. A horse that appears just after the pair are discussing a horse. Later, it seems like there’s a purpose to the events—a creature made of trash and wind chases the friends down the street. But the fantasy is sometimes so subtle that it’s possible to believe it isn’t quite real, up until the end anyway.
My only complaint about the book has to do with the ending, which I thought was rushed and confusing. Rushed endings are a common problem in fantasy novels, and it’s a big issue here, especially when the pacing was so leisurely in the early chapters. I had to read the last couple of chapters multiple times to work out what happened. At this point, I think I know what happened (except for what happened with the horse, which I can’t sort out at all), but I’m confused about why. Why did Polly’s plan work? How did she even know to try this? I wonder if some of my confusion stems from my not previously knowing the story of Tam Lin that inspired the book. (I know! See above, re: lack of guidance in childhood reading.) I do love an ambiguous ending, but there’s a fine line between ambiguous and muddled, and Fire and Hemlock is just over the line into muddled territory for me.
I also wasn’t sure that the romance was necessary to the story. It perhaps is, given the Tam Lin connection (Is it a Tam Lin thing? Tell me!); but it felt thrown in. I wasn’t bothered, as some readers might be, by the age difference. Laurie King manages a similar pairing with Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, but she lets it grow slowly, which helps sell it to the readers. For the characters, the time line for Polly and Tom is not so different as for Mary and Sherlock, I suppose, but for this reader, it was sudden.
This was my first foray into Diana Wynne Jones, and I know many Shelf Love readers are fans, so I’d welcome suggestions for what to try next. And if you also have suggestions for versions of Tam Lin that I should read, I’d love those too. (I intend to look through some of my anthologies to see if I have a version of the original ballad, but I’m also interested in adaptations.)