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Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

I want to say that Diana Wynne Jones' core strength is characterization, but I actually think her powers are multivalent. But it's true that her skill at characterization is superb. Every character in this novel feels unique and recognizable, with perhaps only the narrator-protagonist, Polly, feeling slightly ... what? Not generic so much as someone we can all identify with, someone who encompasses all of us. A reader-shaped person? I don't know. But half the fun of the two novels by DWJ I've read so far is living with her characters, and the way that even the minor ones -- such as the violist, Ann, in this book -- can leave a powerful impression. Indeed, I can't remember for sure whether this book actually passes the Bechdel Test (I assume so), but the number of memorable female characters is seemingly endless: gritty Granny, delusional mother Ivy, weird Laurel, faddish Nina, sturdy Fiona, horsey Mary Fields, warm Ann, nervous Edna. Neither is this at all a happy sisterhood, but rather a bristling bevy of clashing and collaborating personalities and powers. Polly herself is conflicted, contradictory, and multivalent (or I guess polyvalent), and part of her heroism is her ability to work through all of her scrambled impulses and tangled worldly and otherworldly experiences and find the sacred in the mixed messages therein.

In DWJ's essay "The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey", about her conception of Fire and Hemlock, she writes about the layers upon layers of mythic, poetic, and fairy tale images and inspirations in the book. It definitely has a feeling of great complexity and density while also functioning as a easily-relatable young adult coming-of-age story. It covers nine years in Polly's life, and her perspective changes dramatically as she goes from age ten to age nineteen, which is something I think we've all experienced. On top of that is the narrative complexity of the story being about Polly discovering one set of memories beneath another in her own head. Thus as a novel it is aligned with Modernist ideas of consciousness and personal identity at the same time as it is aligned with pre-Modern ideas of heroism and magic. (Jones explicitly argues here that pre-Modern is pre-Chaucer, by the way.) I suppose this is typical of modern novels of the fantastic, but perhaps it's unusual in those that land solidly on the side of the delusion -- the otherworld -- being real. There's no ambiguity in the end that Polly has had an encounter with the world of Faerie, yet what actually happened is quite ambiguous and largely symbolic or mystical.

Amanda Craig, writing about the comparisons between J.K. Rowling and DWJ that sprang up in the wake of the huge success of the Harry Potter books, says, "Where Rowling’s plots are highly controlled thrillers, Wynne-Jones’s often come to her in a dream and retain the organic strangeness, comic unpredictability, dread and sense of wonder that a volcanic subconscious can throw up." There's a strange feeling of wildness in this book that I find difficult to explain. Maybe it's because there are so many sources to the story, and it ends up feeling like an explosion of ideas and incidents. But in both DWJ books I've read I've also been fascinated by the powerful sense of connection she creates between incidents or objects that seem innocuous when they are first introduced but then take on numinous meaning later. So it's not just the powerful ideas she introduces into the story but the way she connects them and the way they seem to suddenly possess and turbocharge the narrative.

This brings me around to the way that magic is used in these stories. I remarked in my bit about Howl's Moving Castle that DWJ connects magic to poetry, and she does that here too, both explicitly in the quotations from the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer that head each chapter and in the influence of T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" that she writes about in her essay about the book. In Fire and Hemlock she also ties magic to music, both in the way the novel is structured, after Eliot's poem, as four musical movements (with a coda) and in the character of Tom Lynn, whose musical abilities both brought him to the attention of the Queen of Elfland and gave him and his string quartet partners the power to resist her for a time. Thus DWJ draws parallels between art and magic, and these parallels can't help but suggest that her novel too is a magical spell of some sort. It's a gateway into the otherworld, in which imagination and creativity invoke a sacred space where mystical transformations can occur and the world is suddenly, like objects in a mirror, closer than it might appear.

It's heady stuff. These two books by DWJ have hit me with a jolt that I last felt when reading Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist. They have that same sense of old folk wisdom and eerie, fey lunacy about them. They are stories of the uncanny, grounded in the mundane troubles of growing up and getting on with life. I can see why DWJ has such a devoted following. It's Hexwood next for me.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 13th, 2013 07:19 pm (UTC)
You have identified two things that I love in particular about this absolutely brilliant novel.

"There's no ambiguity in the end that Polly has had an encounter with the world of Faerie, yet what actually happened is quite ambiguous ... organic strangeness ... take on numinous meaning." Very little that's overtly supernatural happens in this book, yet the feel of magic is utterly pervasive. It's impossible to overstate how different this is from fantasy novels in which characters throw around spells like they would cell phone calls, yet which have no feeling of the weird or magical about them whatsoever.

"It covers nine years in Polly's life, and her perspective changes dramatically as she goes from age ten to age nineteen." How many other novels, even coming-of-age stories, cover such a vast span of childhood development in the protagonist's life, all of it depicted from an interior perspective, and still convey such a strong sense of her being the same person, whatever her age?
Feb. 13th, 2013 07:57 pm (UTC)
One of the other odd things about this books is the way that time seems to move in different directions at different times or for different people, but not in an explicit way as in The King of Elfland's Daughter or the original story of Thomas the Rhymer. I'm thinking in particular of the way that Tom Lynn seems older at the beginning than he does at the end, which is explained (sort of) as being a shift in Polly's perspective as she gets older but feels weirder (more uncanny) than that.

Edited at 2013-02-14 12:20 am (UTC)
Feb. 13th, 2013 08:05 pm (UTC)
Well, I did mention them earlier elsenet, but if you like Jones' strength in creating characters, I'll re-recommend Eight Days of Luke, and Archer's Goon for some really fine work with evolving characters and relationships among characters as the stories progress.
Feb. 13th, 2013 08:46 pm (UTC)
Yep, all the ones you recommended elsenet are on my list. Archer's Goon has probably gone to the top at this point, based on other people's recs, but Deep Secret is up there too.
Feb. 13th, 2013 10:26 pm (UTC)
I count Archer's Goon as one of the best, but I haven't read anywhere near all.
Feb. 13th, 2013 10:35 pm (UTC)
It's a lot of books to read.
Feb. 13th, 2013 08:37 pm (UTC)
Hexwood is a little bit... challenging.
Feb. 13th, 2013 08:49 pm (UTC)
I got that feeling from the reviews and comments I read. It sounds like the kind of absurdly recomplicated story that I tend to love, but we shall see. It also seems to be the one novel of hers that's marketed as for adults.
Feb. 14th, 2013 02:08 am (UTC)
Polly herself is conflicted, contradictory, and multivalent (or I guess polyvalent)

BOOOOOO!!!!! [throws contents of crisper drawers]

I really do need to re-read this one. I tend to re-read the Crestomanci books because they're shorter/faster and very comforting.
Feb. 14th, 2013 06:30 am (UTC)
In my defense, DWJ herself says that Polly's named was meant to evoke "poly", since DWJ saw her as embodying multiple mythic and fairy tale characters. (If you haven't seen the essay I mention above, it's well worth looking up.)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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