The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, is like three books for the price of one. It’s a mystery, a fairy tale, and then it’s a meta-meditation. What’s wonderful about it is that if you like even one of these, it will convince you on the other two counts. It’s charismatic. Its sheer audacity will compel you.
It sets the tone nicely from page one. Alice and her mother, Ella, receive news that Althea Proserpine, their matriarch, is dead. Instead of the tears and reminiscing you might expect from learning that a grandmother is dead, Ella sits down, has a smoke, and declares them free. She then proceeds to seek her bliss, marrying and settling in one place instead of fleeing to a new town every few months, keeping her eyes forward instead of looking forever over her shoulder.
And what about Alice? Well, she never knew her grandmother. But she knew of her, both because Althea Proserpine was an underground sensation. Her single book, Tales from the Hinterland, still has a rabid fandom—which Alice might consider joining, if she could just get a copy of the dang book. And if her mother didn’t panic every time Althea so much as crossed Alice’s mind.
A rare book, an unwelcome marriage, a new school, and a boy named Finch who might be into her or might just be into the fact that she’s related to Althea. (There are romantic elements, but I am so glad that the focus is squarely on Alice and not on teens making doe-eyes at each other. We have enough of those.) There’s your YA–but then Ella is kidnapped. At once, Alice’s story changes. She’s running toward, not running away, and hoping she isn’t too late. Because the more stories Finch tells, the more she realizes that her grandmother didn’t know the meaning of happy endings. Sharp bursts of violence and the methodical unease of detective work begin, and the book transforms. At the heart of the mystery is Althea’s estate, the Hazel Wood. And once there…
Three stories, three women. But this is unequivocally Alice’s tale. Her voice is strong and clear, not to mention angry. The simmering fury that sometimes bursts out of her is something that is missing from so many YA novels, and something that I deeply appreciate seeing here, coming from a young woman. Albert handles it cannily, and we see it motivating Alice as well as tripping her up.
There’s also such elegance and skill in the writing, not just the nesting of narratives. I would pause while reading to savor a metaphor here and there, like an exquisite sip of champagne. “A woman so pretty it felt like a trick. Her head was shaved and she wore no jewelry; there was nothing to protect you from her face” (302). Or, “…a hard arc of bubbles that could’ve been white skirts, or a drifting mass of fins” (303). Or, “The last of the moon slipped away and the sun bellied up, the two shouldering past each other for one radiant moment that seared brighter than fireworks…” (304). These sentences just keep tumbling from the pages like pearls from a princess’s mouth. It’s glorious.
I’m pleased to hear that the twelve mysterious stories from Tales from the Hinterland will be published as a book in our world as well. I don’t usually like or read short story collections, so it’s a big deal that this is even on my list, let alone one I’ll be breathlessly awaiting. I can’t wait for more of Albert’s writing. It’s a dark, psychotic Haroun and the Sea of Stories for the YA set, with hints of Jonathan Carroll and Leigh Bardugo, and it’s entirely her own.