The tagline on the dust jacket grabbed me immediately:
“Tell Alice to stay the hell away from the Hazel Wood.” — Ella Proserpine.
The Hazel Wood is the debut novel by Melissa Albert, a YA mystery/fairy tale/buddy story set somewhat in the wilds of upstate New York. I can’t recall where I first came across this wonderful book. Certainly, the jacket copy and cover illustrations beautifully catch the eye, so much so that I see them from across the store whenever I enter a book store lately. The big grab for me, however, is my penchant for alternate renderings of fairy tales. These days I am far more Gregory Maguire than Angela Carter or Anne Rice, but the idea of a girl with a distant grandmother who is a writer of new fairy tales, well, it’s just too delightful.
Alice Crewe lives a gypsy life with her mother Ella. They never stay somewhere for more than a few months, and never, it would seem, in the same place twice. The two are chased around the country by a seemingly endless run of bad luck. Estranged from Althea Prosperine, Ella’s mother and their only remaining relative, the two only settle down upon hearing the news of Althea’s death. Almost instantly Ella marries, and the pair move into the swanky abode of her new Manhattan husband. However, just when their bad luck seems to be at an end, things take a sudden turn. Ella is kidnapped, and somehow the persistent fan base that surrounds Althea’s work is connected to it. Very few copies of the book exist, and those that do are shrouded in strange stories of intrigue. Alice finds herself on the road with a friend from school, who happens to be an Althea junkie. With his help, she sets off on the journey to retrieve her mother. And there the descriptions end because spoilers, sweetie.
I savored absolutely every moment of this book, from the re-working of familiar fairy tales to the boy as sidekick not protagonist to the representations of family, fiend, and friend. Despite my distaste for extending a good stand-alone into a mediocre series, I find myself eager to enter the Hazel Wood once more. The twisted fairy tales that were mostly hinted at, and told on occasion in summary, were sufficiently twisted. They resemble the real fairy tales of old rather than the Tinkerbell type that prevails in the books and movies my children partake in. This book scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. On the whole, it feels like the spiritual love child of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, with that level of fairy mischief to captivate you.
There are some reviews out there that dismiss this book as a watered-down version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but I find I cannot agree with this view at all and would encourage you to go down this particular rabbit hole as soon as possible. My apologies to purists, but the Alice of Albert’s book is far more interesting than Carroll’s. Sorry, Lewis, dear boy. The universe that this Alice steps into is far more fleshed out than a mere copy of Wonderland, and it has the feel of a good M. Night Shyamalan tale—with none of the bad cameos. Albert is a gifted spinner of stories and in The Hazel Wood has created a world run on an exciting mechanism. Of course, as with any story about stories, especially fairy tales, you can feel the homage to her predecessors, but The Hazel Wood puts a fresh spin on the nature of stories and the tales we tell. The ending is satisfying in so many different ways. I will offer no spoilers except to say that it seems that everyone gets what they needed, if not what they wanted. I will be delighted to find out what happens next.