|Title:||The Hazel Wood|
I begin this review with the revelation that this novel has given me my faith back. My faith in the ability to tell a really good tale, my faith in the power of magic in literature, and my faith that writers still have the ability to shock and surprise us. This does not in any way mean that I have not felt that way towards other stories in the past, but as an old-school fairy-tale retelling this one left me completely stunned. The Hazel Wood (2018) is like nothing I have ever read. In fact I took a week to read this novel (and I could have devoured it in a few days) because I honestly did not want it to end. I felt like I was in this weird haze the entire time, and you would need to read it to have even an inkling of what I am getting at. I read the last page and stared into space for a little while because I still felt like I was on this weird trip through a sea of smoke and magic. It was honestly one of the strangest reading experiences I have had…perhaps ever.
The story begins with an introduction to our heroine, Alice. Alice lives in the real world with her mother Ella, and the fading knowledge that her grandmother Althea Proserpine is the infamous writer of an out of print book of fairy tales called Tales of the Hinterland. The book itself has become something of a rare commodity and all those that manage to obtain a copy are usually not able to hold on to it for very long. Alice herself has never read the book and she lives the first 17 years of her life curious about her grandmother’s legacy.
Alice and Ella live a very nomadic life, and her memories become jumbled up with time spent moving from place to place. She envies those that have had the opportunity to read the book, and yet Alice and her mother are not devoid of fantastical things. Throughout her life they have been plagued by a series of events that have forced them to always stay mobile. When Ella finally gets married to a man named Harold, with a daughter Audrey, it starts to seem as though perhaps their life of traveling around may finally be over. Alice starts at a new school and meets a kindred spirit in Ellery Finch who is just maybe a little odd, and a little rich. However Finch is also a huge fan of Tales of the Hinterland as well as a super fan of its elusive author which often worries Alice.
Then two things happen that change the course of both mother and daughter’s lives. First, they receive a letter stating that Althea has passed away and they have inherited her home, The Hazel Wood. The second thing to occur is that Ella goes missing, and it appears as though The Hinterland itself have abducted her. Thrown out of Harold’s home, Alice is forced to seek Finch’s help to find her mother and hopefully rescue her from the fairy tale world she appears to have been sucked into. Traveling through the ‘real world’ Alice and Finch encounter strange characters from her grandmother’s book that have infiltrated the world. The characters are unlike any fairy tale characters I have ever come across in my readings of classics from Hans Christian Andersen, the Brother’s Grimm and Andrew Lang. There seems to be a permanent darkness that hovers over the Hinterlanders without a happy ending in sight. In fact they are exactly as they are portrayed in the book – cruel and violent characters without the appearance of a moral compass at all.
Once inside the Hinterland things get even stranger and even creepier when Alice realizes that everything she thought she knew about herself was not even close to what the reality is, and we (the readers) begin to question whether any of Alice’s story is real. It’s a wild trip I’ll tell ya!
I do not want to give anything else away. The story of Alice and her search for her mother, and for her grandmother, and for The Hazel Wood actually ends up turning into a search for herself. Yes that sound’s incredibly cheesy, but this book is not even remotely cheesy. Melissa Albert’s stunning novel is about a girl that has literally and figuratively ‘lost her way’ among the realities of the modern world, and the horrors of the typical fairy tale. Even with this review I feel as though I will never be able to do it justice without letting you in on all the secrets, and we can’t do that can we?