by Diana Wynne Jones
A story within a story within a story. That's my broad impression of Fire and Hemlock. I first read this book years ago as a teen, and puzzled through the entire thing. I knew it was a reworked fairy tale, but had no idea which one. This despite the quotes from Thomas the Rymer and the ballad of Tam Lin heading every chapter. I wasn't familiar with the ballad until later when I read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. Now I realize (thanks to some comments at Things Mean A Lot) that Fire and Hemlock is also a retelling of Tam Lin.
The book opens with its main character, Polly, musing over some confusing memories. They began when she was ten years old, dressed up in black for Halloween and accidentally intruded upon a funeral. A kind man named Thomas Lynn helped her sneak out again (but not undetected) and she engaged him in her game of "Let's Pretend"- creating alternative identities for them both as heroes-in-training. Thus began a lifelong friendship. Lynn was a musician and frequently traveled, but for years they wrote letters back and forth full of invented stories about their hero alter egos, and he constantly sent her books. Polly values Lynn's friendship- her own father is often absent- but neither her mum or grandmother approve of him. More disturbing, some people from the funeral house are spying on her, and then aspects of the stories she and Lynn have made up begin appearing in the real world. Polly begins to realize something unusual is going on, but she can't figure out what, and when she finally does, it may just be too late...
The story was definitely less opaque to me this time, although I still don't quite understand the significance of the hemlock picture (I've read that hemlock is poisonous, but does it have some mythical properties too?) and the closing scene is very confusing, even after reading it several times I'm still not sure what happened there. It's all set in England, and I enjoyed the sense of place and occasional foreign (to me) British words. All of the characters are interesting: Polly's stern and wise grandmother, suspicious and unhappy mother, bossy extroverted friend Nina, the dignified kindly Lynn himself, and many many others. When reading the part where Polly performs in a pantomime, I immediately recalled a similar scene from another British writer- a little boy's ballet performance as a cygnet in Thursday's Children by Rumer Godden. I've got to write about her books soon. They're among some of my favorites too.
Rating: 3/5 ........ 341 pages, 1985
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