Melissa Albert-The Hazel Wood

Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. When Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic 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 away—by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” (Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: magic, destiny, identity, mother-daughter relationships, death, life, after life, fantasy, nature vs nurture, rage, anger, friendship, fairy tale, marital abuse, poverty, imagination.

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Review: The Brothers Grimm would probably approve. The Hazel Wood delves into the terrifying underbelly behind Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After. Do not read this expecting Disney Princesses, Fairy Godmothers, and Handsome Princes. This story instead displays the dangers of fairy tales. If everything and everyone you loved disappeared into the fairy world, how would you react?

The Hazel Wood refers to two things: the secluded estate of a famous author and the location of living nightmares. Half-dark fairytale, half-psychological horror, Melissa Albert’s debut novel is not a lighthearted read. The protagonist possess more anger than the Incredible Hulk and has a smart aleck mouth that would make Deadpool proud. While marketed as young adult, I think this book definitely falls on the older side of the spectrum. Readers younger than sixteen might miss the allusions to previous dark fairy tales and the language definitely verges on “mature”. Content wise, The Hazel Wood marks a nice change of pace from the candy floss fluff of Disney fairy tale princess. (Not that there is anything wrong with Disney, sometimes you just want a twisted fairy tale)

Seventeen-year-old Alice Crewe and her mother, Ella, live fast and loose. Plagued with misfortune, they move fast when their luck runs out, moving throughout the continental US from small town to big city in an effort to stay one-step ahead from trouble. Once in a semi-stable life in upper class New York, their luck finally runs out. Alice’s maternal grandmother, the reclusive author of the cult book Tales from the Hinterland, dies in the Hazel Wood, her estate in upper state New York. Shortly afterwards, Ella is kidnapped. Ella’s last words to Alice are a command to stay away from The Hazel Wood, yet Alice has no choice but to mount a rescue mission, even if it kills one of them.

In a fit of desperation, Alice enlists the help of her classmate, Ellery Finch, who also happens to be a die-hard fan of her grandmother’s book. Soon reality and fantasy start to collide and characters from the ruthless Hinterland start terrorizing Alice and Ellery. Is the Hazel Wood a doomed estate or a doorway into an elusive and deadly fairyland? Alice must decide if she is willing to enter another world in order to save her mother and find out the truth about her family.

Based upon the description of the Hinterland, it sounds a lot like a much deadlier version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Odd creatures, weird prophecies, mysterious cabins, and “story” characters haunt the realm. Albert spends little time on exploring the other-worldliness of the Hinterland. Other than some weird time manipulations and a “reality refugee” bar, this other world does not seem much different from any other twisted fairyland. Albert only focuses on the terrible parts of fairyland. There is never a moment where she allows the reader to explore the Hinterland. No wonder or happy conclusions exist in this world. Perhaps the biggest drawback to the narrative is the lack of hope. Everything revolves around Alice’s severe rage and anger at existence. This does make the story a little hard to get through at points as unrelenting darkness becomes tiresome.

Part of the magic of fairy tales, even the twisted ones, revolves around the message of hope versus evil. Even in the darkest moments, hope exists for a better outcome. The Hazel Wood does not believe in hope. Only evil or ambivalence seems to exist in the Hinterland. Poor Alice cannot catch a break. Before the advent of the written word, fairy tales existed in an oral tradition as a way to teach morality. These tales exist to show the consequences of bad decisions but also the redemptive power of forgiveness and second chances, neither of which seem to exist in Albert’s world. I think this robs the story of a third dimension and makes it hard to root for Alice since there does not appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Overall, I enjoyed The Hazel Wood. Stylistically it reminded me a lot of the Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland, and Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale. Lack of hope aside, the narrative is one of the more original young adult fairy tales to hit the shelves in recent years. I hope Albert explores the Hinterland in more detail with the sequels. Meanwhile, be careful what you wish for, the story never goes the way you want.

The Hazel Wood, Flatiron Books, 2018, ISBN: 9781250147905

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