“But I still saw the shadow of the bad luck: a woman who trailed me through a used bookstore, whispered something obscene in my ear as she picked my phone from my pocket. Streetlights winking out over my head, one by one, as I walked down the street after midnight. The same busker showing up with his guitar on every train I rode for a week, singing “Go Ask Alice” in his spooky tenor.”
There’s something creepy about the bad luck that follows Alice and her mother, something eerie and supernatural, something that may be connected to Alice’s grandmother Althea: the enigmatic author of an out-of-print collection of dark fairy-tales. But when Althea passes away alone in her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice’s bad luck magnifies. Her mother is kidnapped by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother leaves behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”
The bait was set, I was immediately reeled in. The story was set up so well, I appreciated the colloquial and humorous writing style with a touch of poignancy. I really enjoyed Alice, not your typical protagonist. She had a tough upbringing, and she’s riddled with anger issues and a smoking habit to boot. Yeah she’s not entirely fond of life, but she doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself. She’s angry, sure, but she felt rounded and real. I’m not the kind of person who needs a protagonist to be “likeable” in order to like them, so Alice, with a bit of a temper, seemed fab. I eased into the story, desperate for answers to the mysteries surrounding the Hazel Wood.
Wow, did I wait for those.
Look, mystery is a great plot device and I’m all for it. But you can’t take the piss. You can’t string it out for over half the book without giving us anything! I didn’t find the plot slow, there was more than enough going on, but honestly most of that was mere teasing. For more than half of the book, mysterious and creepy stuff just keeps happening. More and more questions start to appear. Do we get any answers? Nah. And that’s just plain annoying. And what am I going to do when I don’t get any hints and I’ve started to get irritated? I start noticing the flaws.
I didn’t appreciate running around with these characters for 200-odd pages, being teased, and really not seeing any character growth. Alice, who I liked initially, got dull. She seemed promising, but showed her true colours in the end: two-dimensional and ultimately uninteresting. I like an alternative, kinda-dicky character, but you’ve got to give them depth. The only other memorable character was Alice’s sidekick Finch, who was so boring I’ve got nothing else to say about him. It was such a shame. It started off with such promise!
But then, eventually, the answers started appearing. And for the time it took them, they could have been better. I’m not knocking them: the denouement and climax of the story were entirely reasonable, but by this point I had stopped caring.
My fantasy of an epic, dark Alice in Wonderland retelling? Where was that? Sure, Alice ends up in the Hinterland, which is otherworldly and strange, but it is not even remotely reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s airy, Dadaist masterpiece of nonsense. The closest thing The Hazel Wood resembles is Eastern European folklore, but even then that’s a bit of a stretch. The most enjoyable and recognizable attempt at recreating the genre were two short chapters which were stories from Tales from the Hinterland, Althea’s book. They were fabulous, I’d take more of those in a heartbeat. But we only got two (the relevant ones), and they were dispersed in weird places throughout the main plot, distracting from the story and immediately taking my mind out of the world. Ideally what we could have done with were lots of really condensed versions of the story scattered evenly throughout the novel between chapters. I’d have enjoyed that a whole lot more.
At the end of the day, this isn’t just a one-star novel for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning, I did like Melissa Albert’s fairy-tales, and I think the overall plot arc was decent. But I really feel a lot more work could have been put into the execution. I needed characters with more depth, a less drawn-out mystery, and honestly what was that whole “white privilege” scene about?! (If you’ve read The Hazel Wood, let’s discuss in the comments because come on what was that?)
If you’re looking for an eerie fairy-tale retelling or something with that kind of vibe, there’s a few books I’d recommend above this one. Drown by Esther Dalseno and Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge spring to mind.
It looks like Melissa Albert is set to release the actual Tales from the Hinterland in a few years as a collection of her fairy-tales, which is definitely something I’d look out for. But as for
The Hazel Wood, I feel this tale should be left in the Hinterland where it belongs.
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