183. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publication Year: 1985
When Polly realizes that she has two conflicting sets of memories, she sets out to separate fact from fiction and discover what happened to her most beloved childhood friend, the musician Thomas Lynn.
Shanra of Libri Touches has declared October Tam Lin Month! I knew I wanted to participate, and this book sprang instantly to mind. Y'all told me it was TEH AWESOME, so I borrowed it from the library and took it on my recent walkabout.
I read it in two sittings. It’s that kind of a book.
FIRE AND HEMLOCK feels rather unlike the other DWJ titles I’ve read in that it’s a purely contemporary story. It takes place in our world, and the magical elements remain understated for much of the novel. Its fascination comes not from flashy worldbuilding or inventive, immersive magical systems, but rather from the gradual unfolding of Polly’s life. We follow her from ten through to nineteen, and we see just how her friendship with Tom shapes her as a person.
Of course, it is a little more complex--and a little more magical--than that. Even Polly and Tom’s most lighthearted adventures possess gothic, supernatural undertones that hint at the truth behind both Polly’s buried memories and Tom’s place in his ex-wife Laurel’s strange, insular family. Those who’re familiar with the source material will certainly spot the parallels between the myth and this contemporary work, but I don’t think you need to know about Tam Lin in order to enjoy Polly’s tale. This isn’t a straight retelling of the old story; it riffs off a familiar theme in a way that encourages, but does not assume, additional knowledge. I think you could just as easily read Tam Lin and spot the connections with FIRE AND HEMLOCK as the other way around.
A minor complaint, now: Polly and Tom aren’t that far apart in age, but Jones initially gives us the impression that he’s a much older man. I knew the book was shaping up to be a love story, so I found this pretty damned creepy. It does sort of make sense that she takes so long to reveal Tom’s age--we’re seeing things through Polly’s eyes, and her ten-year-old self thinks that even fourteen-year-old Seb is ancient--but I wish she’d done it sooner. If this squiggs you out, too, rest assured that a) by the end of the book, the age difference isn’t so pronounced and b) the romance doesn’t really come out until Polly’s old enough.
That’s a relatively small issue, though. In the main, I loved this. I even liked the ending, which is apparently a sticking point for most readers. I don’t hesitate to recommend it to you, though it is, unfortunately, out of print. I hope you’re able to access it through your library, or find a used copy.
Just look at that cover! You’d think it was painted way back in the dark ages of cover art (ie, the 1970s), but you’d be dead wrong. It’s from 2002.
Shocked me, too.
Polly’s younger than me all the way through, as are most of her friends. Tom’s younger than me in the beginning, but older than me by the end. I assume his friends follow the same pattern. Everyone’s grandmothers, parents and ex-wives are older than me.
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