Author: Melissa Albert
Title: The Hazel Wood
Series: The Hazel Wood #1
So many people recommended this book that I couldn’t not read it at some point. As it was available at my library as an e-book during lockdown, I jumped at the opportunity – and now here we are 😊.
The Hazel Wood tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Alice Crew and her mother, Ella. Finally settling down in New York after years spent on the road, they hope for a change for better – until the ill luck that kept hunting them throughout their whole lives catches up with them. With her mother kidnapped by strange, dangerous creatures, it’s down to Alice and her school friend Ellery Finch to find Ella before it’s too late. And while Ella stubbornly kept Alice away from her grandmother and the sprawling, infamous Hazel Wood estate, now Alice has no choice but to find and visit that tantalizing, mysterious place – for all the answers to the questions that haunted her all her life might await her there.
The Hazel Wood is a curious book, part-fairy-tale, part-YA fantasy, part-modern UF. And I guess that this hybrid construction is ultimately the reason for the novel’s unevenness; namely, some elements of Albert’s story work better than others. The book can be roughly divided into two parts: the first, taking place in the normal, contemporary world, bereft of magic, and the second, playing out in the Hinterlands – The Hazel Wood’s equivalent of Faerie. The everyday world of The Hazel Wood is a reflection on modern America, with its starkly contrasting social divides – both between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, all subtly painted by Albert. On that canvas, which could well serve as a basis for all types of books, from thrillers to literary fiction, Albert sketches a plethora of even more disturbing shapes – these of a hidden, dangerous world, filled with ruthless, amoral creatures somehow able to find their way to our world and wreak havoc in the unsuspecting sleepy suburbs. I really admired the little touches of wild fairy-tales, seemingly without beginning or end, without a discernible moral, but with an overabundance of wilful, gory violence. Those snippets brought to my mind the original Grimm tales – similarly violent and bloody, based on a primeval notion of justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And the way Albert wrote about the tales, as of cool, distanced reportages from war, also recalled the curiously impersonal way brothers Grimm applied to their own collation of folklore tales.
Those early pages of The Hazel Wood quickly drew me in; the unnamed ill luck hunting the protagonist and her mother through the States in a kaleidoscope of roads, motels, rented apartments; the strange spectre of Alice’s grandmother, the author of the infamous “Tales from the Hinterland,” who by all accounts should have been long forgotten but still enjoys a cult following; the teenage angst of the constantly angry, wary, misanthropic Alice, colouring her every relationship except one; her unique bond with her mother Ella, which seemed like a life-line for both of them, scared, scarred, and lost in the wide world. Truth be told, there is not a whole, unbroken, hundred percent “normal” person in the novel – everybody seems to have some sort of a wound, a flaw, a secret, some curious incompatibility with the wider world. Their fragile worldviews and hesitant, anxious relationships they form with others are a big part of the book’s allure – if you’re expecting a usual YA fare, you might be in for a hefty surprise.
Where the first part came along with laudable smoothness, the language lush and sharp and enviably assured, wonderfully building tension and a pervasive feeling of unnamed, unknown threat, the second part somehow disappointingly petered out to an underwhelming finale. I find it’s a common failing of those UF novels which try to reconcile the modern world of everyday life with the Faerie in its dazzling multitude of hues and forms; where the descriptions of our world are vibrant and intriguing and convincing, the Faerie – Hinterland, in the case of The Hazel Wood – comes off pale and flimsy in comparison, more of a by-the-numbers play than something truly original and gripping. The plight of the characters we’ve come to care for throughout the first part suddenly becomes perfunctory, the previous urgency lost among the lengthy descriptions of the fantasy world. As a result, the protagonists’ movements in Hinterland come off as half-automatic, bereft of agency and unavoidable not due to the machinations of the all-powerful Spinner, but, to the detriment of the story – made to fit the needs of the even more-powerful author. There’s an intriguing correlation between the two personages, by the way 😉.
Some of the author’s choices seemed to be directly responsible for the sudden loss of direction and purpose: the inevitable trajectory of fairy-tales was an intriguing concept, but sadly remained underdeveloped, serving only to further the idea that the characters of the Hinterland fairy tales suffered from the rigid limitations of their particular stories. And yet, there was plenty of inconsistencies both within and without Hinterland, undermining the overarching logic of the created world and resulting in an ultimately imperfect experience – at least for me. As much as I can understand the fellow bloggers’ delight in this story, I must say that I cannot share their full enjoyment. The Hazel Wood was for me an intriguing, at times darkly wonderful, but ultimately flawed reading experience. I enjoyed the many twists and subversions of the genre tropes, I admired the precise, cutting yet poetic language and imagination of the first part of the book – but in the end, after such sumptuous, fascinating beginnings, my delight in the story was marred by the conclusion, which felt underdeveloped and somewhat uninspiring. I’m not sure if I’m going to read the sequel to The Hazel Wood, The Night Country. My TBR is overflowing, thanks to you all 😉, and The Hazel Wood works well enough as a stand-alone for me not to feel compelled to read any further. One thing is certain: The Hazel Wood is a formidable – and admirable – debut, and the author Melissa Albert’s name is undoubtedly worth noting.
This is our last entry in this year’s Wyrd & Wonder!