What is The Hazel Wood? It’s not an adventure story- not much of one, anyway. It’s a fairy tale story about STORY; a novel that starts with the trappings of a portal story, but one that becomes literary towards the end and maybe even postmodern.
The novel centers on a book called Tales of the Hinterland, a Necronomicon of sorts, which serves as evidence of a world beyond the physical one we inhabit (see note 1). Though the stories are fairy tales, two different characters in the novel note how the writing feels beyond real, and more like war reportage (see note 2). By this, they mean that the stories are unvarnished tales of trauma. They feature cruelty, anger, and a desire for revenge. What’s left unspoken is the possibility that all stories are born of trauma, and that stories serve as an unhealthy, circular script for our lives.
That’s profound stuff.
The central question of the novel is can we escape story or does trauma dictate destiny? The writer, Melissa Albert, tells the tale through two teenagers, a young woman named Alice Crewe (Alice Proserpine) and a boy named Ellery Finch. One is white, and one is mixed race. Both take comfort in stories as an escape. For Alice, her trauma is submerged in her memory. Ellery Finch’s trauma is submerged in the narrative. We get hints and clues about it, but nothing definite. He cheerfully hides his pain.
After Alice’s mother is kidnapped by characters from Tales of the Hinterland, the two teenagers try to recover her by journeying to the mythical Hinterland. After that, the book becomes dreamlike, which makes sense. Trauma means dream.
YA fantasy is a genre I’m not too familiar with, but I’ve blogged about it before (here and here). Most of what I know comes from March McCarron’s blog post on the subject, which delineates some hallmarks of the genre. As a writer, I thought it would be fun to see if The Hazel Wood conforms to genre expectations.
1.) be character driven rather than plot driven.
The Hazel Wood is character driven. As noted above, the story is about trauma. The trouble is that the trauma/ character backstory remains vague. Honestly, I think the book suffers because of this, and a part of me thinks that the novel would have been more enjoyable if it were told from Ellery’s point of view.
2.) be set in a world that is only as big as it needs to be.
The Hazel Wood is a portal story, and as such, features a secondary world. Here, it’s the writing that lets the story down. What should have been a world full of wonder is rendered with as little description as possible. A writer can get away with this, if the descriptions are impactful, i.e., highlight a novel’s theme. The Hazel Wood relies more on a “look how weird everything is” approach. So, while the world feels small and undeveloped, it’s not nearly as big as it needs to be.
3.) be fast paced
The book is fast paced for the most part. It’s also digressive. Two fairy tale stories inserted in the novel stop the narrative in its tracks. These fairy tales are the best part of the book, though.
4.) ease you in
We don’t need too much easing into the story since it takes place in the regular world. The beginning of the novel is just the Alice Crewe character’s life before the inciting incident (it reminded me of the Gilmore Girls). The reader is more than prepared for the secondary portal world since it runs on fairy tale logic (no rhyme or reason for anything).
5.) make you feel SO many EMOTIONS!!!
The characters are cyphers, so you don’t feel their emotions so much as observe them.
6.) be more focused on inter-character drama.
There isn’t much drama between Ellery and Alice, just a connection.
7.) feature dramatic character growth.
Spoiler. Alice grows at the end of the novel. She breaks out of her story, but as the writing at this point of the novel is in wrap-up mode, you don’t experience her growth in a satisfying way (see note 3). This was a strange choice on Albert’s part, since Alice’s breaking free from her story is the heart of the novel. At least, it should have been.
8.) be anachronistic.
Not applicable, since the novel is a portal story.
9.) have some unexpected twists.
The book has a lot of twists. Nothing in the novel is as it seems. Some of the twists, however, jarred me out of the story.
10.) have pretty covers.
Final score: The Hazel Wood has 8 out of 10 hallmarks of YA fantasy.
Note 1: The novel has at least one homage to Lovecraft.
Note 2: The novel contains two fairy tales, a whole one and a fragment. Both read like traditional fairy tales and not like war reportage at all.
Note 3: It’s interesting that while Alice escapes her story, Ellery chooses to remain within his. The reasons for this are hard to fathom, mostly because the trauma’s in Ellery’s life are so vague. There’s a whiff of tragic mulatto about his choice, which is sad to see. I hope the second book is about him finding a way back.