Books to give you hope: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Written to create a female hero, this book about hidden magic in the everyday eschews fairy-tale bliss to close with an inconclusive yet brilliant assertion that monsters must be faced together

There is no other coming-of-age story quite like Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, the book I think of first when tiresome people assert that children’s literature lacks ambition and complexity. Structurally based on TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, and woven through with allusions to the Odyssey and the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of two Scottish ballads, Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, set both in an England of the 1980s (Here, Now) and a fluid otherwhere (Nowhere) in which legend and resourceful imagination are sovereign.

Every name and detail is charged with intertextual significance; the clues to the mystery at the book’s heart are intricately bound up in literary reference, from Lang’s fairy tales to The Golden Bough. And its ending leaves the reader poised like a spinning top in a perpetual state of surmise, hopeful but not comforted – a feat of Wynne Jones’s characteristically graceful, tormenting sleight-of-hand.

Nineteen-year-old Polly Whittacker is packing to return to university when she discovers a long-forgotten book. Reading it, she realises that she has two sets of memories: a straightforward, superficial version of her life so far and an underlying set, blocked for years, in which Tom Lynn, a gentle, acerbic musician, has played a crucial role in her life, and she in his.

The 10-year-old Polly is staying with her grandmother to escape her warring parents when she first meets Mr Lynn. Dressed up as a high priestess in black, she unwittingly gatecrashes a funeral at the sinister Hunsdon House, where she encounters both Tom Lynn and the Leroy family to whom he is mysteriously bound. She strikes up a friendship with him, unwittingly interfering in his destiny by helping him choose for his inheritance several valuable pictures to which he is not entitled. Afterwards, when Polly returns to her mother’s home, she and Tom remain friends; they write to each other and invent stories together and, every so often, he sends her parcels of battered, transformative books.

It is dangerous for Polly to befriend Tom, however. His ex-wife, Laurel Leroy, is a fairy queen who takes human husbands, sacrificing them every nine years to prolong the life of her king. In addition, just as the queen did with the original Thomas the Rhymer, she has given Tom Lynn a backhanded gift: everything he imagines or writes will come true, but will also inevitably injure him in some way. When Tom and Polly invent heroic tales together, therefore, their imaginings come menacingly to life; and to keep Laurel and the Leroys at bay, they must use tricks and aliases when they correspond or occasionally meet. Later, when teenage Polly works an ill-judged charm to track Tom down, Laurel is finally able to act against her, excising her memories of him at a stroke. But now the adult Polly has remembered all that went before, just as Tom’s life is due to be given up. Can she save him – or must he be tithed to hell?

Reading Fire and Hemlock has given me a perennial, powerful sense of hope, in great part because of Polly and her development. Wynne Jones, who died in 2011 aged 76, wrote the book explicitly to create a female hero, after a childhood immersed in books of mythology and legend convinced her that there were vanishingly few already written. Although tomboyish, Polly isn’t “kick-ass”, or a tediously Strong Female Character. In fact, she is enjoyably ordinary in many ways; but she is tenacious and thoughtful and brave, stubborn, bad-tempered and splendidly single-minded. She weathers hopeless, abusive parenting without losing her capacity to love, or to fight for those she loves. For me, also, her story is as much about coming of age as a writer as it is about growing up, helped along by Tom. At one point, Polly writes a horrendous fanfic-ish instalment of their shared story, rich in rippling muscles and satin skin, and receives a scathing two-word review – “Sentimental Drivel” – on the back of a postcard. Harsh, but ultimately salutary.

Another hopeful element of the book is its disconcerting ending, as unstraightforward, demanding and ambitious as the rest of it. To go into much more detail here would enter spoiler territory, but suffice to say that rereading it as an adult, I find Fire and Hemlock more hopeful still because it ends so inconclusively, opening onto a precarious future in which monsters must be faced together, rather than closing on fairytale bliss. It’s a perfect fit for the shape of Polly’s story, moving from the hemlock of oblivion and “spiritual death” towards the fire of creation, danger and life.

As well as creating a female hero, Wynne Jones intended “to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate”, and the style with which she evokes the magic buried in the everyday always makes me see the world sharply afresh.


Imogen Russell Williams

The GuardianTramp

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