A well-written young-adult fairytale that mixes fantastical escapism with moody horror to fine effect in an assured debut.
Like One of Us Is Lying, Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood has a new sequel. And like my review of that locked-room whodunit, with public interest probably higher now that it’s going to be for a while, I find myself returning to this assured YA debut for a brief write-up on what was probably the best book in its field during its year of release.
Blending the enduring dreamlike qualities of the best fairytales with a plainer kind of psychological horror, the setup is intriguing: Alice, a seventeen-year-old with an attitude, and her mother, Ella, have lived an itinerant lifestyle throughout the United States, finally settling in New York where presumed but not perceived ills catch up with them. Those ills might be the responsibility of Alice’s grandmother, Althea, a reclusive writer whose dark fairytale collection, Tales from the Hinterland, has achieved a ravenous cult fandom who hang on its every atypical word. Now Althea has died in her secluded rural estate, the Hazel Wood of the title, and shortly afterward Ella disappears, perhaps whisked away by a creature sprung from Althea’s imagination.
So begins, then, a rather unconventional road trip through a slightly off-kilter New York and eventually into a demented land of make-believe, as Alice sets out with her wealthy classmate — and self-confessed Hinterland obsessive — Ellery Finch to track down her mother, despite having been warned away. Albert’s obvious displeasure with traditionality, both in fairy stories and in contemporary YA ones, is evident throughout, as the mythical kingdom of Althea’s book is rife with eerie perversions of old tropes and concepts. There are some perhaps slightly too-familiar character beats, and the prose is rife with out-there similies that can now and again feel a bit forced, but most of The Hazel Wood is refreshingly unusual.
You wouldn’t want all stories along these lines to be quite like this; its escapism of an odd sort, in which its oppressive confines gradually become narrower. Eventually, only a pinprick of real-world light remains, but the acerbic heroine at the story’s heart, despite being surrounded by horrors, never quite loses touch of her humanity.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.