The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

hazelwoodThis book has gotten a lot of hype, which is the sort of thing I tend to ignore, but it’s also right up my alley: a book about fairytales. Seventeen year old Alice has lived a vagrant existence with her mother all her life, never staying in one place for long, always running from the bad luck that seems to plague them. But when her mother is mysteriously abducted, she’s forced to travel to the Hazel Wood, the estate of her grandmother, in search of answers. Her grandmother once wrote a book of fairytales that has all but disappeared from the world, despite its cult-like following. When Alice arrives at the Hazel Wood, she realizes that fairytales are not simply tales, and that the dark stories her grandmother told come from a real place, the Hinterland, into which she must venture if she wants her life back.

I loved this book for many reasons. It was a great adventure–perfectly creepy, fast-moving, and populated with weird and wonderful creatures. In many ways it’s set up as a classic quest: Alice and her friend Finch set off to find Alice’s mother and encounter a whole lot of danger and trouble on the way. It’s not boring, though, and I loved the balance between quiet character-driven scenes and action-packed sequences during which I could not put the book down. The writing is lovely and the pacing just right.

But what I loved most was what this book has to say about stories: how they’re made, what they mean, how they impact real lives. Alice and Finch venture into a land that is powered by stories, and it is utterly fascinating. Albert has a lot to say not just about storytelling itself, but about how our lives, themselves, are stories. What does it mean to be in charge of your own story? How does the telling of a story change it? The Hazel Wood is an adventure, a quest, and a coming of age tale, but mostly, it’s a book about stories. There are stories-within-stories and stories inside those stories. It’s a really interesting look at the fabric and structure of how we talk to each other and how we narrate our own lives.

Something else I appreciated was the way this book celebrated chosen family. Alice is haunted by her grandmother and her mother, both their absence and their presence in her life, and when she finally gets to the Hazel Wood, she discovers whole layers of secrets that change the way she sees herself. But Albert doesn’t tie things up neatly, and she doesn’t honor one kind of family over another. In the end, Alice has to decide who she is and where she belongs. She has to tell her own story for herself–not only the one she’s currently living, but the story of her past and the story of her future. She’s a character to whom a lot happens, but she has agency. She makes the calls. I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the ending, and all the things it says about the myriad ways people build families and define their own identities.

This is one of those fantastic books that was both pure fun and deeply thoughtful. I’d recommend to anyone who likes a good adventure, and to anyone who spends time thinking about what stories mean, and the work we all do building lives out of the stories we tell each other and ourselves.



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