Polly Whittacker has two sets of memories. In the first, things are boringly normal; in the second, her life is entangled with the mysterious, complicated cellist Thomas Lynn. One day, the second set of memories overpowers the first, and Polly knows something is very wrong. Someone has been trying to make her forget Tom – whose life, she realizes, is at supernatural risk. Fire and Hemlock is a fantasy filled with sorcery and intrigue, magic and mystery – and a most unusual and satisfying love story.
Widely considered to be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best novels, the Firebird edition of Fire and Hemlock features an introduction by the acclaimed Garth Nix – and an essay about the writing of the book by Jones herself.Amazon
This book has a dreamlike quality to it. Even when the narration is straightforward, which it is mostly is, there is an element of things not being what they seem. It is a very British book that takes place in the era of Gen X.
(There’s a phrase I wasn’t prepared to type but I think it works and I am leaving it in.)
The tone is… a bit confusing. Let’s move right along to Writing Style
Writing Style and Plot
Wynne Jones loves herself some complicated plot threads. Add that to the idea that our main character has two sets of memories and most of the book is a rather long and complicated flashback, add that to the idea that there are a few different versions of reality sitting on tops of one another… and then sprinkle in some magical elements and fairy tale shenanigans… and some… Irish? Old English? Welsh? Some sort of folklore that I feel like Wynne Jones’ audience is expected to know that I very clearly did not… And… well, it isn’t a total mess by any means, but it is a very messy bit of spaghetti.
Translation: I had a hard time following some of the threads. Had this been another author, I might have given up. But I recently read (and adored) Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle and I trusted that she was going to explain everything eventually. Which. She. Sort of. Did. Sort of. Mostly.
Also? It was very very long. Over 400 pages long. Far too long to be this disjointed. I will say that the first half is by far the better half and I think that is mostly because child Polly and the setting up of things is more exciting than grown-up Polly or the “resolution.”
Our main character is a child at the start and a young adult by the end and yet her voice never changes. Nine years is a long time to not mature. I liked the child version of Polly but had a hard time rooting for grown-up Polly. There are also a few plot points/characterizations that won’t age well regarding the relationship Polly has with Tom. Again. She is a child at the beginning… and… well. /cue uncomfortable cringe here/ As a feminist, I also was pretty uncomfy with the way Polly did and did not deal with the unwanted advances of the “love” interests in her life.
The side characters are great though. Nina especially was vivid and memorable even if the way she is described by child Polly seems too adult. Polly’s parents and grandmother are also really interesting side characters capable of eliciting strong emotions in the reader. Boy did I want to slap some sense into someone and hug another super tight!
Polly herself… not so much. She was … just sort of there which is not what you want in your protagonist.
Kind of. I mean… the story is interesting but it gets really lost in the weeds. The devices of the double past and the withholding of information from the protagonist/audience wear really thin, and the resolution is not quite worthy of the build-up. I’m not sure who the target audience is for this book. I don’t think I will ever reread it. In fact, I am a little frustrated that I gave it so much of my time.
Would I recommend it?
Why THIS Book?
I loved Howl’s Moving Castle so much. I was at a used book store and I looked for anything by Diana Wynne Jones…. This was the only thing on the shelf. I don’t know which title is more Diana Wynne Jones’ style… I guess I will need to read a third book by her and figure out which one is the anomaly. Maybe I don’t like her style? Maybe Fire and Hemlock is the weird outlier? That might explain why it was the only one in stock at the local used bookstore. I am pretty sure I am going to sell my copy back.
That being said, she is a very very prolific writer and is much loved. So…. maybe it’s just me.
Here’s my hot take. If you are a Wynne Jones fan or are super interested in this book by all means give it a go. But if by chapter 3 you are wondering at what point things will start to move along, might as well read something else.
Final Note: My version of the book has an introduction by Garth Nix (which I read) and an essay by Diana Wynne Jones (which I did not read).
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?