The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
Flatiron Books, 2018
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
I loved fairy tale stories when I was young. They inspired me to dream up mystical worlds. I imagined myself finding an abandoned mansion, deep within the woods where I discovered I had magical powers; or befriending a band of pixies that needed my help in battling an evil ogre. My fantasies always contained a wild adventure and a happy ending, that included me finding some hidden inner-strength.
As an adult, I recognize that life isn’t about happy endings. But what I learned from fairy tales is that there is beauty in the journey, and that with determination, good can conquer dark. Who couldn’t use a little of that these days, right? So I was excited to pick up a copy of Melissa Albert’s, The Hazel Wood — a fairy tale set in modern days. And while I enjoyed getting lost in The Hinterland, I will go out on a limb and suggest that The Hazel Wood is not for everyone. It is a dark and somewhat twisted fairy tale, featuring a teen-aged protagonist that is full of angst and a bunch of pretty creepy and cruel characters. While I found the story captivating, the protagonist, Alice, was simply annoying.
I’ll be honest, blatantly hostile characters just don’t resonate with me. Maybe it is because, in general, I try to avoid these types of people — whether they are in real life or in a made-up world. Regardless, I wanted to smack Alice more than once. Yes, she and her mother have basically been homeless her entire life. Yes, her mother was kidnapped. Yes, her cult-famous author of a grandmother seemingly abandoned her and is now dead. Yes, her step-father and step-sister are bores. Yes, evil characters from a parallel fairy tale universe are chasing after her. But hey, we all have issues. It is your choice whether or not you want to let it define you and embroil you, Alice.
However, at the end of the day — a clever plot, great dialogue,and interwoven (and incredibly dark) fairy tales from her grandmother’s published book (sort of a book-within-a-book) all serve to overcome my annoyance with Alice’s simmering rage. The Hazel Wood deals with the important themes of trauma, identity and belonging. It certainly isn’t akin to any of the happy fairy tales we grew up with, nor does it provide the reader with a feel-good inspirational message. But it is a good reminder of the darkness that lies too close to the surface, and the need for diligence to keep it a bay.
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