In honour of the fact that Diana Wynne Jones’ final novel, the posthumous ‘The Islands of Chaldea‘ (co-written with, and completed by, her sister Ursula) is being published this week, I decided that today’s book review was going to focus on the novel which is, in my opinion, the finest of Wynne Jones’ amazing canon. That book is ‘Fire and Hemlock.’
Some years ago, I was at an academic conference which focused on the retelling of stories – in other words, the differences between versions of tales over time, or between translations from one language into another, or when a tale is used as a basis for another story entirely. The best paper by far at that conference was given by a woman who compared the medieval Scottish ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ to ‘Fire and Hemlock.’ Her paper made such an impression on me that I immediately noted the name of the book and resolved to track it down. I couldn’t believe that, as a huge DWJ fan, I’d never heard of ‘Fire and Hemlock’ and – even better – it sounded amazing.
In short – it is.
Diana Wynne Jones was, as far as I know, married to a prominent medievalist. It makes sense, then, that her work would be informed by a sensitivity to that era and its literature, but this book displays that sensitivity more than any other. It is deeply influenced by ‘Tam Lin’, and also by ‘Thomas the Rhymer‘, and by any number of medieval romances in which a knight errant finds himself in Fairyland, is seduced by the powerful and jealous Queen and kept there as a prize, only to be won back by the bravery of a human woman prepared to sacrifice everything for him. That basic plot is the spine of ‘Fire and Hemlock,’ but a reader doesn’t need to be aware of the book’s influences to enjoy the story. ‘Fire and Hemlock’ is so much more than a retelling of a dusty old tale. It is a book unlike any other I’ve read, and it has a unique power.
The novel introduces us to Polly Whittacker, at nineteen, who is packing up her stuff in order to leave for college – or, at least, she’s supposed to be packing her stuff. Really, she’s reading a story entitled ‘Two-Timer’ in a book called Time Out of Mind, about a character with the power to go back into their own childhood and change the way their life works out. In the course of taking a break from her book, her eye falls on a picture she loved as a child, but which she is no longer terribly fond of. It’s entitled ‘Fire and Hemlock,’ and she wonders why it meant so much to her, once. She also wonders why she feels a lot like the character in her book, as though she has half-remembered memories of a life, a different life, one that she feels sure she’s lived through simultaneously with her own. All these thoughts coalesce as she gazes at the image, and she has a sudden moment of realisation. Out of the blue, she remembers gatecrashing a funeral at the age of ten, at which she met a charismatic man named Thomas Lynn.
But Thomas Lynn is a man whom nobody else remembers. A man who, it seems, may never have existed at all. So why does Polly remember him so clearly, now that she has resurrected the memory?
Well. That all depends on what world she’s living in.
The plot of the book is rich, intertextual, and complex. It is, as I’ve said, based around the core concepts found in its medieval analogues – a person lost to one world, found by the love of a person willing to go to any lengths to get them back – but there is also an element of ‘quantum’ going on here. The idea of ‘other worlds’, existing side by side or in layers of reality, is found too; the book explores the idea that if a person decides to tell their own story differently, they can change the world in which they live. Stories and words shape reality, literally as well as figuratively. One of the central images from the book is that of a pair of large stone vases in the grounds of the large house in which the aforementioned funeral was held; both of them are adorned with the word ‘Nowhere’, but in such a way that a viewer can never see the whole word all at once. Each vase rotates on its base, one freely and one rather more stiffly, and when they are rotated, different combinations of the letters are revealed. Wynne Jones uses these words in so many ways to suggest the layers of reality in her novel – ‘Now Here’, ‘No Where,’ ‘Nowhere,’ ‘Here Now’ – and the book, accordingly, has a dreamy feel at times, a hazy sense of reality slipping away and being remade as you read. It’s remarkable.
I love books in which the characters’ names are important. Thomas (or Tom) Lynn is clearly ‘Tam Lin’, the stolen hero; his dangerous ex-wife Laurel is named for the astringent, powerfully flavoured plant which, interestingly, is known as Laurus nobilis in the Latin. When one realises that she is an analogue to the powerful, seductive and exquisitely dangerous Fairy Queens of lore, this name becomes even more meaningful. Polly Whittacker, whose name conjurs up images of the ‘white acre’ (with its nuances of purity and the land), is unquestionably the heroine whose humanity is the key to salvation.There are loads of other nerdy connections that can be drawn between characters and their names, and the placenames Wynne Jones chooses, and if one has a knowledge of the texts she’s referencing it only adds to the richness of the book.
I loved the way Wynne Jones handles Polly’s relationship with Thomas Lynn. I can’t say too much, because I would hate to give away even a crumb of the brilliance of it, but let’s just say: it’s out of the ordinary. It’s unexpected. It’s wonderful.
And then, that ending. That ending. About which I’m giving away exactly nothing. It will leave you breathless with admiration and lost for words, and also – quite possibly – scratching your head in confusion, but that is why I love it so much.
This book is nothing short of a masterpiece. However, as it was originally published in 1985, I found it hard to come by when I bought the copy I now own. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but if you are ever lucky enough to come across it, I strongly recommend you give it a try.
For what better way to pay homage to Diana Wynne Jones than by keeping her words alive?
Have a storyful weekend!