After Diana Wynne Jones’ death a few weeks ago, I–like many people–wanted to go back and read some of her work. I decided to revisit Fire and Hemlock. This was a reread, and I selected it in part because I had some trouble with it the first time around–but thought at the time that I might like it better on a second read.
This book is a bit difficult to describe without giving things away. It begins with Polly, who is 19 and looking at a book of fantasy stories. One of them, a story about a man with two sets of memories, triggers a series of hidden memories for her. The book jumps back to when Polly was ten, and moves forward exploring these hidden memories. They start when Polly gate-crashed a funeral at the mysterious Hunsdon House next door to her grandmother’s, and met Tom Lynn.
At this point I ought to describe Tom; this is also where I had trouble the first read-through. Ten-year-old Polly views Tom as much, much older than her, and Diana aids and abets this impression for the reader. I think he’s described as “stooped” at some point, he definitely is described as having an “elderly hairstyle,” and he’s a recently-divorced cello player. None of this says “young man” to me. The divorce alone would probably make me assume thirties at least, and everything else had me putting him as minimum mid-forties, and only the relatively young-sounding ex-wife would keep me from assuming he was much older.
I’m about to reveal what was probably supposed to be a twist–so I’m sorry for a spoiler, but it was a twist that thoroughly derailed me, and I would’ve done better had it been spoiled. Hundreds of pages in, we find out that Polly as a child was a very poor judge of age, and Tom was much younger than she led us to believe. This becomes important to the ending, which is why I had such trouble the first time. This time I really tried to implant in my mental image the idea that he was young, to the point that I was mentally chanting “he’s twenty, he’s twenty” on occasion. Later evidence in the book suggests he was probably early twenties. So if you read this, keep that in mind–it might help. And pay no attention to the cover, it has a horrible depiction of Tom.
Back to the plot. Tom and Polly, despite their not-quite-as-big-as-I-thought age difference, become fast friends, making up stories about their alter ego selves who are heroes in training. It all becomes more fantastical when the stories they make up begin to come true. Meanwhile, the Leroys, who own Hunsdon House and include Tom’s ex-wife, have some kind of sinister hold on Tom, and continually warn Polly away. Nineteen-year-old Polly has to solve the mystery, and determine what happened four years previously that changed, not only her memory, but apparently actual events.
I’m not really sure what kind of review this is. Because I really enjoyed the book. There’s so much in here that’s wonderful–characters, mystery, fantastic adventures, humor. And yet…the end doesn’t quite pull together for me. The basic mystery is cleared up, there’s essential resolution, but I feel like an extra twenty pages explaining what just happened would be very helpful. I love Diana Wynne Jones’ books–love, love, love them–but every so often one of them is more convoluted and confusing than the others.
So I guess it’s a mixed review. I recommend it…but if you try reading it, remember–he’s young!
Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/dwjflash.htm
And official fansite: http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk/