The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Spooktastic Reads 2021 19th to 31st October
Artwork by Olga Yastremska from 123RF.com; banner courtesy of imyril of onemore.org

 

Alice and her mother live a peripatetic life, dogged by a weird bad luck and estranged from the only other family they have, Alice’s grandmother Althea Proserpine, an enigmatic author of a single collection of fairy-tales. When they learn of Althea’s death, Alice’s mom seems inclined to finally settle down, but it appears that this death is only the beginning of a new nightmare.

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This was a fun read that I chomped through over two evenings. As it’s getting a little chilly at the edges now that the days are shorter, I took great pleasure in curling up on the sofa in the house alone and losing myself in Albert’s unpredictable and knobbly story. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, it was dark and delicious with just a hint of a bitter aftertaste, like really dark chocolate with 85% cocoa solids.

 

The delicious:

I love a book that revolves around another book and/or a mysterious author, (think Possession by A S Byatt and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which both make me swoony), and the reclusive Althea Proserpine “raising her daughter on fairy tales” was an immediate draw. The incredible scarcity of Althea’s solitary book, Tales of the Hinterland provides further catnip. Her twelve darkly disturbing fairy tales loom in the background of The Hazel Wood, but the reader is never given more than hints and glimpses of their content. Their titles alone conjure older, darker stories; titles like “Jenny and the Night Women”, “Twice-Killed-Katherine” and “The Skinned Maiden” made me think of those earlier versions of well-known fairy stories, in which the Ugly Sisters cut off their own toes and the witch is cooked in her own oven.

This is a story all about discoveries, but I really enjoyed the pace Albert set. I was on tenterhooks almost until the end, following Albert’s breadcrumbs. It could, of course, be that I am exceptionally dense, but I felt that even as I was picking up pieces of the puzzle, unravelling Althea’s story, Ella’s childhood and then Alice’s, still I wasn’t able to see the whole solution until the author wanted me to. And I found the answers, when they arrived, surprising and satisfying, and not a moment too soon.

Possibly my favourite thing about The Hazel Wood was how unexpectedly creepy the first half was. It’s definitely a book of two halves, with things getting all kinds of fairy-tale-weird after the halfway point, but I really enjoyed the spookiness as Alice gets drawn away from the everyday world. The first appearance of Twice-Killed-Katherine (who gets bonus points for having a kickass name) genuinely scared me (please remember I was home alone and that I’m a massive scaredy-cat, you’re mileage may vary), as did the crow at the window, the photo that Alice and Ellery found in the book, and what happened to Ness and Martin. After finding the Hazel Wood estate, Alice’s journey moves from scary to surreal. The story takes on an almost dream-like logic in places (I especially liked the importance of travelling by bicycle in the Hinterland), and things begin to follow fairy-tale rules. Old, dark fairy-tale rules. While not as overtly spooky as the introductory chapters, this second half is still as unpredictable and gripping as the rest.

Small things that helped with my enjoyment of the weird and wonderful in this book were the ordinary bits and bobs: Alice’s stepdad and stepsister, Harold and Audrey, not being awful or amazing, and their being thoroughly freaked out when Ella goes missing; Ellery Finch not becoming the love interest and, more importantly, being driven by his own desire to enter the Hinterland, rather than just caught up in Alice’s story; Ness tucked away in her ordinary, untidy apartment; the road trip and the motel room Ellery and Alice stay in; Alice’s jeans and cheap sneakers; the bicycles. The scary stuff is genuinely scary and the bizarre stuff genuinely bizarre because it’s hanging from a recognisable, mundane frame, but not following rules we can immediately apprehend. Every normal, everyday detail adds to the skewness of the Hinterland and its creatures.

 

The bitter:

Alice is prickly and angry and not easy to like. She is overly meddlesome in her Mom’s marriage to Harold, admits to having hit her Mom when she was younger, and is permanently simmering with rage. And yet her flaws make her relatable too; don’t we all say things we don’t mean? Don’t we all get angry sometimes? Don’t we all occasionally want to answer with an eye-roll and a ‘pfft’? She might be mean and waspish on occasion, but she’s also tenacious and fiercely loyal, if only to Ella.

So, yeah, Alice takes a while to warm to. Far more bothersome for me, and the only thing that transferred this book from the Rereads shelf to the One-Time Reads shelf in my brain, was the explanation that the Spinner felt the need to provide towards the end. If you’re someone who likes everything to be spelled out for you, this won’t be a problem. For me, after the ride I’d been on with Alice and Ellery, it was too much. I’d have been happy to keep a little of the mystery of the Hinterland alive. Obviously, this is entirely personal, so don’t let it put you off reading The Hazel Wood if you’re in the mood for some shiver-inducing fairy-tale trickery.

 

Finally, if there’s one thing this novel left me wanting it was an actual copy of Althea’s Tales of the Hinterland. Every peek I took into her world made me more and more curious about those twelve stories and the fates of their characters. The morning after finishing The Hazel Wood I headed down a Google-hole at the end of which I discovered, to my delight, that Melissa Albert has written The Tales of the Hinterland. It may not come in a green cloth-bound hardback edition with gold embossing, but it’s out there, available to read and not nearly as difficult to find as it was for Ellery and Alice. My dark little dream come true. Mwah-ha-ha.

 

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