The Hazel Wood
Author: Melissa Albert
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Flatiron Books
A Review by Lindsay Sanderson
Bad luck follows Alice and her mother Ella through life like a fairy-tale destiny. They have been on the move constantly, outrunning this omen that has a mysterious link to Alice’s grandmother Althea Proserpine, an elusive dark fantasy writer. This is why, at 17 years old, Alice has no notion of home, except within the books she read during her uprooted childhood. When the news of Althea’s death reaches Alice and Ella, they both assume their bad luck has finally ended. But in a sick twist of fate, Alice realizes that her story is only beginning its dark spiral into an uncanny, sinister plot.
Melissa Albert achieves an excellent balance between traditional fairy tale elements, modern pop culture references, and intertextuality in The Hazel Wood. From Harry Potter to Wilkie Collins, Albert provides little Easter eggs for readers that will please bookies and fantasy lovers alike. Even by naming the protagonist Alice, Albert pulls elements of wonder from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and then builds on those themes and emotions by introducing her own twisted folk tales and nursery rhymes.
As a refreshing change, The Hazel Wood puts forward more mature themes than most YA novels, which makes the overall narrative more meaningful. Albert juxtaposes poverty with the life of excess, showing the positives and negatives of both lifestyles. She also includes diverse characters in both sexuality and race. The most impressive commentary put forward is the brief, but powerful observation concerning police brutality against the black community, and the white privilege that overlooks this phenomenon. This inclusion is striking and uplifting.
However, some constructive criticism is in order for The Hazel Wood as well. Albert does a thorough job of introducing the plot and setting, but as Alice descends into the fantasy world of the Hinterland, the narration becomes rushed. It doesn’t take the time to fully describe the wonders and horrors that Alice encounters. It’s uncertain whether Albert is allowing space for the reader’s imagination, or is purposely leaving blanks to reflect Alice’s confusion. Either way, the novel needs more imagery to create the fantasy world Albert wants to convey. The first major plot twist is also anti-climatic, there wasn’t enough rising action to bring much impact. Hopefully as Albert continues this series, she puts more time into showing rather than telling.
Buy It! Despite some shortcomings, The Hazel Wood is a fascinating, entertaining, and fresh young adult novel. It draws on nostalgia from childhood fairy tales to evoke a sentimental feeling for readers, but adds its own twisted narrative to create something that is uniquely thrilling. Alice’s first person narration is witty, ironic, and full of teen angst. The characterization is solid for the main protagonists, and hopefully Albert will continue to develop them in the following novels. As most fairy tales do, The Hazel Wood puts forth a lesson – We control our own stories. For a generation of young adults looking into a somewhat bleak future, this message is welcome and important.