I cannot choose a favourite Diana Wynne Jones novel. They are all luminous and familiar and unexpected, braiding science fiction, parallel worlds, fantasy, history, the awful ordinary trials of every day life (indeed, Awful from Archer’s Goon is one of my favourite secondary characters) and frequently (though not in Fire and Hemlock) the complications families bring to adventures. Fire and Hemlock, however, is one of the novels I most frequently reread.
Fire and Hemlock is part reworking, part continuation of the story in the ballad of Tam Lin and is a story of friends and language, cellists and hardware stores, idle stories coming true, forgotten friends, the varied uglinesses of the human back and the dangers of wandering into other people’s funerals. It is a light and luminous story with an almost completely impenetrable ending.
It is a good ending. I am always certain of that. I am sure it is a happy ending – I feel happy and satisfied whenever I read it. But working out how it is good, convincing my head as well as my heart, is an exercise I repeat on every reread. It is part of the power and charm of the book.
(If you’ve read the novel already, this is one of several articles which I’ve found helpful in deciphering the exact mechanics of the end: Fire and Hemlock reconsidered, but there are others out there. ETA: Here’s another: We only live, only suspire / consumed by either fire or fire – the novel isn’t “literary” but it is tremendous fun to examine from that angle).