“Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the strange bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate – the Hazel Wood – Alice learns how bad her luck can really get. Her mother is stolen, by a figure who claims to come from the cruel supernatural world from her grandmother’s stories. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: STAY AWAY FROM THE HAZEL WOOD. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began…”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
“I remembered less from my own life than I did from the books I read.”
From the very outset of this novel, Melissa Albert weaves a weird and wonderful story which is reminiscent of the darker side to so many beloved fairy tales. It is in the overlap and slippage between the “real world” and the “fairy tale world” that the true value in The Hazel Wood lies and I found that the book was at its best when it was describing moments when the two worlds coincide, such as when one of the characters from Alice’s grandmother’s story “comes to life” and is casually walking around New York City. The rules of the fairy tale world and the rules of “real life” don’t match up and, in having a character operate outside of their usual system, Melissa Albert cleverly illustrates that the worlds and societies we create are all a fiction, in one sense or another. There is something simultaneously incredibly mesmerising but also terrifying about the implications of this, and the narrative of The Hazel Wood was perfectly woven to make its readers feel the disquiet of seeing ideas ordinarily confined to the realms of the fairy tale exist in the same walk of life as their own.
“Hell is caring about other people.”
At times, in fact, the novel felt like it slipped from its alleged YA fantasy genre and into a thriller. Although there was always the underlying current of mystery and unease regarding the disappearance of Ella, Alice’s mother, when Alice returns home to find Ella missing, the novel almost becomes a thriller. You get the sense that Alice is now racing against time and ought to be dodging people who may very well be after her, and the pacing of the novel in this section is perfectly drawn to make the reader feel the same sense of anxiety, panic, and encroaching dread. There is a scene in which Alice receives a photograph taken of her sleeping whilst she was on the run, and the entire idea of that being orchestrated by someone to taunt her and creep her out made me feel suddenly claustrophobic and paranoid, as she surely must have felt. Into this otherwise “ordinary” setting, the eerie elements of the fantastical are then woven, resulting in the creation of something that, to be honest, was altogether terrifying. And when we get a true glimpse of the true fairy tale world, the Hinterland, which was created by Alice’s author grandmother? It is nothing short of the stuff of nightmares, as all good “fairy tales” probably should be.
“There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic, where shitty things happen. And they don’t happen for a reason, or in threes, or in a way that looks like justice. They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.”
The characters were well built, and I appreciated first and foremost that it didn’t feel like the author felt compelled to make either the protagonist Alice, or her mother Ella, particularly likeable. So often I feel pressured by the authorial voice to like the protagonist of any given book (particularly in YA), but I appreciated that Melissa Albert just let them be without the ulterior motive to make her readers immediately like them. Speaking of, I fell in love with Finch almost immediately, largely despite myself because I knew there had to be more to Finch that meets the eye (i.e. his enthusiasm for fairy tales and his seemingly endless wallet). A friend of mine who has read the book has commented that Finch feels almost like the stock character of the enabler, as his wealth is necessary to aid an otherwise poor Alice in being able to physically move locations – I don’t disagree with this assessment, but I do think that this is deliberate as later in the book, Albert interrogates the idea of characters and (more importantly) side characters in fairy tales themselves, particularly those who enable (or stop) a story from happening, those characters who are otherwise on the fringes of the main story/the hero’s “quest”.
“Few problems were unsolvable when you had boatloads of cash and a lifetime’s worth of rich friends. Finch made some calls, and an hour after leaving the park we were ringing the bell at a townhouse in Brooklyn Heights.”
When it comes down to it, I adored the concept of The Hazel Wood, and there were moments of genuine brilliance within the story – I particularly applaud its ability to make me feel completely sucked into Alice’s quest to find her disappeared mother, to the point of me genuinely feeling the peril and panic Alice was experiencing myself. However, I found this novel to deteriorate as it progressed; I much preferred the opening sections full of mystery and unsettling happenings, to where it ended up leading into the Hazel Wood. Likewise, I’m not sure if it was the author’s style or the editor’s style which proved the overriding factor, but I did think there was something ever so slightly off about the tone and pacing of the book overall, as if two people (and their ideas of what The Hazel Wood should be) were fighting each other for dominance. In the end, I think I found the execution of the concept a tad iffy on occasion, and the narrative style wasn’t quite to my taste enough for me to become fully invested in the story line throughout, but I can’t deny that I do still love the concepts behind The Hazel Wood and the way the novel cleverly interrogates the structure and concept of fairy tales, the fictions and worlds which we build around us, and the power of storytelling itself.
“And while they’re being told, stories create the energy that makes this world go. They keep our stars in place. They make our grass grow.”
Thank you to Penguin Random House Children for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.
Please note: the quotes above were taken from the eARC copy of the novel – this may be subject to change and differ from the published text of the novel.