fire & hemlock.

Friday, 17 May 2013 15:04
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Fire & Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones.

I felt totally bleak and desperate after finishing this book. What a good book, though! I think it might be one of my favorite DWJs - it achieves a psychological complexity that didn't quite work for me in Time of the Ghost, and tied that up with really intriguing thoughts about the way fantasy and magic and time and childhood works. I really, really loved it.

I don't have my copy with me right now (typing up this post in the library as a break from revision), and I think that might be good, because I don't want to lapse into quoting too much, but right, ok, there's this scene where Nina and Polly are in the Nativity play, and alongside saying the lines they're supposed to, they have a whispered, parenthesized conversation. In addition to being really fucking adorable and comic, Polly thinks something like, "This was the way their stories worked. If only she could explain it to Tom in that way." And it pretty much does say a lot about how DWJ thinks magic and fantasy works - it explains how you can have two sets of memories lying alongside each other, for instance, the 'deeper', 'more real' set of memories having Thomas Lynn in them and the other… just not, but all the same having real-world consequences; having an indubitable reality (Nina telling her to 'eff off' because they never spoke after Junior School). Which also makes me think of the bit in Witch Week, where after Chrestomanci joins the universes together, the ending scene involves [name] writing a story about Guy Fawkes and what would have happened if, in another timeline, Parliament did get blown up. And her friend tells her: "Do you know what? I think you're going to grow up and write stories explaining." So magic works in ways we can't quite explain - because of our physiological and psychological human limitations, because the realities of magic are too complex, too interwoven, for us to quite grasp. In Fire & Hemlock there are about five realities (at least): the reality Polly initially remembers, the reality she comes to remember, the reality where Laurel is just Tom's dominating and powerful ex-wife, the reality where she's the Faerie Queene, and the reality where Tom and Polly's 'fictions' survive. And then you have things which cross the realities, or are indicative of how multi-layered DWJ's "reality" is: Granny's superstition that every nine years a hearse goes to the big house, the reality of Tom & Polly & the rest of the family being on a train that goes nowhere/ ends at the magical subspace of the house, the rippling pool. (If we're going to continue with the comparative approach here, I think that this is a more complex and successful version of the explicit premise in Enchanted Glass.) There's no logic to the magic that appears in the Fire & Hemlock universe, because we have no logic to explain it. Wittgensteinian!

It's already been discussed elsewhere, how DWJ devised Fire & Hemlock by drawing inspiration from T.S. Eliot's Quartets, and music in general - which I think reinforces my point about how here, time and reality is multilayered and complex - running chronologically, but still designed (& designed in a way that is not totally chronological). What I was really interested in, in that last showdown where Polly saves Tom, is the way she subverts the Tam Lin ballad. Obviously Polly doesn't hang out, she lets go: and that is how she saves Tom. Bla bla bla, the very definition of consent: being able to say yes, because you can say no, and Polly demonstrates that she can say no, in the cruellest way possible. Back to layers: she says these things, because on a certain level, it is true: Tom has used her, ever since she was a child, and it has affected her deeply, sometimes in ways that are malign and threatening. On a certain psychological level Polly's split realities are indicative of - emotional trauma, don't take this to mean a grand medicalising discourse, but of more ordinary emotional hurt. Externally, being hurt is an ordinary part of life, and after a while you start to forget because that is healing. Internally, being hurt lends itself to all sorts of grand metaphors (being shattered, being damaged, being broken - in Polly's case, literally! Into two!). But in Polly's case her split realities, her forgetting, are the hurt.

(Polly calls Tom out on his bad behavior and that is interesting because it is the opposite of forgetting, but it is a specific kind of remembering - Polly remakes her memories. Having found that set after four years, DWJ narrates them to us with Polly-the-little-girl as her narrator. It's only when there is the calling to account, at the pool with the ripples that go the wrong way, that Polly rejigs her account and tells Tom that what happened to her was on some level wrong and awful and totally unfair of him. That is the adult perspective, and it feels so sharp and distinct from the child-reality because there is that gap of four years where Polly completely forgot.)

And I love the words she chooses, much as they hurt: "I'm young and I've got a career to come to." It's the idea of moving on that guts me so much: much as it is needed. Then Polly sort of returns to that banal stuff (a career, god) that is supposed to have so little currency in a young adult fantasy novel/ adaptation of Tam Lin, but which (you tell yourself) matters when you're moving on from a bad relationship. And that is exactly what she's done - moving on from the relationship, while also not.

I said I felt bleak and desperate after finishing the book: bleak from the kind of catharsis you get from narrowly-averted tragedy, and desperate for it - in the sense that Tom and Polly's relationship was everything I want from a relationship: the idea that they started off as friends, and know everything (of importance) there is to know about each other, helped each other grow, are fundamentally kind to each other. Their story together ties into their personal narratives of development and growth, and bystanders can tell how besotted they are with each other. I like relationships which demand a little bit of self-sacrifice and bravery. I like that they make mistakes about each other. I like the end where they take a good hard look at each other, and they figure it out. And the desperateness of not having enough time: "I've always loved your hair," that kiss, oh.

Without wanting to engage in apologia I think DWJ's layered realities are part of how she engages with the age difference issue - when you have about five or six different realities the truism that the true self has no age gains currency. It is true that with Polly, the timeline where she knows and remembers Tom has one chronology, and it's in that one chronology where Tom sees her grow from little girl to adolescent ("You are about to see a real human back," argggh, Tom, shut upppppp). I don't think that this is because their romance is asexual - this book contains a fair amount of sexuality, especially with Polly & Seb's sexual compromises. Perhaps the good thing about having known someone all your life (even if you don't remember it at first) is that it gives you years and years for a sort of emotional intimacy to develop without the complication of sexuality? Anyway, the kiss at the end. In the rain, whatever, who cares, DWJ, I am only so strong, stop yr emotional manipulation, Tom&Polly, sighARGH!!!

Lastly it's quite apparent that words are key to how you construct this reality, all realities - Polly says, "All right, all right, I'll forget him!" and she does. She says, "I never want to see you again!", and Tom is saved. If they can't work anywhere, then (linguistically) it must be all right somewhere. ("Either way we've got her now.") I like that Polly chooses her words carefully ("For you and me, this is quite impossible,") at the end, it shows that she's learnt a degree of care. Secondly, there is a consistent sense through the novel that words run out, that description is inadequate - with the pool, DWJ can't do more than say that it is rippling the wrong way. Again with not being able to capture the logic of magic! And lastly: there are the banalities of grown-up existence, the small lies, the kind of stuff that DWJ so devastatingly excels at, and which make her worldview of the grownup world astoundingly bleak - Polly's mum saying, "I've had to chase my happiness," and using words to elide her responsibility for her failures. Tom & Polly have the gift or curse of making the stories they tell each other become real (but on some level, not, because the ironmonger has always been Tom's brother) - and towards the end when she says "for you and me, this is quite impossible", Tom and Polly have moved past that gift/curse, have moved past the emotional idealism (if they ever had it in quite the same reductive way I'm describing now) of "Of course I'll always love you forever" to take a good hard clear-eyed look at their relationship. And this is what enables it to become real.



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