When it comes to book hype, Penguin, the publishers of The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, should write a how-to guide. Over the last few months this book has been everywhere. From ARCs sent out to reviewers, to exclusive covers featuring in a number of book subscription boxes, anyone who’s anyone in the book blogging community is likely to have multiple copies of this book on their shelves. After seeing the gorgeous cover over and over again, and being intrigued by the title alone, I picked it up from my local library.
I went into The Hazel Wood with no knowledge about the plot, or having read any reviews, which I am now grateful for. It seems as though this book is one that polarises readers. Either you love it or you hate it, but I actually fall somewhere in the middle. I liked it. I can see why others like it, but I can also see why it might not be for some people and that’s ok. This book doesn’t shy away from being what it is. If you’re going to write a story that is unashamedly weird, then you have to be prepared for a love/hate relationship with readers, and hopefully Melissa Albert is enjoying the buzz that has surrounded her book, and taken the reviews for what they are: individual opinions.
The Hazel Wood starts as an urban fantasy, although fantasy might be too much of a stretch for the first 18 chapters. It’s an urban something until that point; perhaps a mystery is the better way to describe it. Our main character Alice has always been fascinated by her famous grandmother, Althea Proserpine, author of a book of dark fairy tales, who she has never met. When her mother receives a letter notifying them of the death of Alice’s grandmother, things take a strange turn and Alice’s mother is kidnapped. Alice teams up with her class-mate and mega-fan of Althea’s book, Ellery Finch, and together they set out to find Alice’s mother in Althea’s infamous home: The Hazel Wood.
I was into this book for the first half. It was creepy and suspenseful, and I genuinely found myself holding my breath as the mystery of Althea’s book unfolded. We get a retelling of a couple of the fairy tales through Finch, and these were my favourite parts of the book. No happy endings here, just twisted tales.
The only thing that bugged me up until this point were the constant references to authors, poets and other people I had never heard of. It’s not just a few names and quotes every now and again, they are in every chapter and it threw me out of the story when I realised they were going to be a major part of the story. I get it, Alice and Ellery are intelligent and well-read, but there are other ways to show that rather than have them quote people that readers might not know, and not just once, constantly.
I wanted that uncaring, ‘here’s your blood and guts and your fucked up happy ending’ fairy-tale voice. But, like, the Andrew Lang stuff wasn’t cutting it for me anymore.’
“I am. And this is my Tam Lin. Though you can call her Ingrid.” She gestured at the blonde, who’d come protectively to her side. I nodded to show I got the reference, though I wondered what the story was , that it fit.
I have no idea who or what a Tam Lin is.
But as I said, I was enjoying the story. Then chapter 19 happened and I found myself on a ride I don’t remember lining up for.
Now, I wouldn’t mind if the story just took a weird turn, it’s a dark fantasy after all, but the problem was I literally had no idea what was happening! The writing became so filled with metaphors that didn’t make sense, that I had trouble understanding what was going on. Alice finds herself in The Hazel Wood and its surroundings, which are part of a different world and where her grandmother found the inspiration for her book (not a spoiler as this is established early on) which sounds awesome, but it was more like reading the words of someone on a drug trip gone wrong.
There was no blood, just her sigh, and silence. My stomach lurched, and the back of my throat tasted like a broken battery. Something hard pattered to the ground between the dead woman and my feet. It lay glittering there, carrying the smell of ozone. The moon’s tears. I felt too dirty to touch them.
Plus the descriptions of the settings follow a similar, metaphor filled vein, and so I found it impossible to picture all the places Alice was visiting. I found this disappointing as I certainly got the vibe that it was dark and beautiful, but my mind was working overtime to make sense of the writing.
But this was a forest that made the Halfway Wood feel like a Polaroid. It made the woods on Earth seem like the pencil sketches of a blind man who’d read about trees but never seen them.
The forest is amazing, beautiful, unique, unlike anything Alice has ever seen, but how? We don’t get anything to work with to let us see it in our mind. Maybe some people think this type of writing is inspired, but I found it more confusing than enlightening.
There were a couple of chapters after chapter 19 that fell back into the prose of the first half of the book, and it was sweet relief to finally be able to follow the story again. Plus there were some great moments where throwaway lines from earlier came back to connect everything together, which is something I really like in stories, especially mysteries.
From what I can piece together of the ending, the story has a unique and interesting premise, but along with the nonsensical writing and the complex ideas that you have to take a leap of faith to understand, I’m still not entirely sure I believe it. Perhaps if I read it again I would see how all the threads tie into each other, and ‘get it,’ but honestly, I just don’t want to. My brain had too much trouble translating what my eyes were seeing on the page the first time.
I think The Hazel Wood is part of a series, or has a sequel coming out at least, but I’m not sure yet if I’ll pick it up. I did like the majority of the story, I found the ideas intriguing, I just struggled with some of the writing. I’m giving this 3 stars.