Art and design

Books

Culture

Environment

Fashion

Film

Life and style

Money

Music

Politics

Science

Technology

Travel

Television

US news

World news

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert review – a wonderland of terror

Melissa Albert
Intoxicating vision … Melissa Albert. Photograph: Laura Etheredge

Part twisted fairytale, part psychological horror, Melissa Albert’s young adult debut is plum-pudding rich with allusions to Angela Carter and Lewis Carroll. Featuring an angry, acerbic protagonist full of spiky self-reliance, it is simultaneously enticing and fearsome, much like the Hazel Wood of the title: both the secluded estate of a famous, secretive author, and a place where living nightmares walk. While not a book for everyone – its dreamy-sharp, intoxicating prose is likely to leave more down-to-earth readers cold – those who fall for it will fall hard.

Seventeen-year-old Alice Crewe and her mother, Ella, are used to leaving fast when their luck runs out, moving through the US from small town to big city. In affluent New York, however, ill luck finally catches up with them. Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of the dark cult fairytale collection Tales from the Hinterland, dies in the Hazel Wood, and Alice’s mother is kidnapped, apparently by a creature from the wood itself. Ella’s last words to her daughter are a command to stay away, yet Alice has no choice but to come to her rescue – though the wood, and its hinterland, promise a Bluebeard’s chamber of inescapable fear.

The founding editor of the Barnes & Noble teen blog, Albert has an acute ear for dialogue and description, and a bracing contempt for outworn YA convention. Among her triumphs are Alice’s stepsister Audrey, zaftig and seductive, with a whip-smart line in repartee, and the unnerving interwoven stories from the book-within-a-book Hinterland collection, with their hair-prickling titles (Twice-Killed Katherine, Alice Three Times). In terms of love interest, Alice’s wealthy schoolmate Ellery Finch seems to become enamoured of her rather too fast; but the trajectory of his story swiftly confounds expectation.

Insidiously beautiful, this is the opposite of escapist fantasy; it is a story about the imagination’s power to loose atrocity into the (mostly) law-abiding confines of the real. It also explores belonging, identity and the ability to find a home in hostile new landscapes. Like Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, it plays unnervingly with the concept of the changeling; like Michelle Harrison’s The Other Alice, it experiments with cutting fictional characters dangerously free of the page. Be careful what you wish for, warns Albert; be careful what stories you tell.

  • The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (Penguin, £7.99). To order a copy for £6.79, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
This article titled "The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert review – a wonderland of terror" was written by Imogen Russell Williams, for The Guardian on Thursday 8 February 2018 03.00pm

Books

Sex, jealousy and gender: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca 80 years on

In 1937, a young army wife sat at her typewriter in a rented house in Alexandria, Egypt. She wasn’t… Read more

Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor review – what the British did to India

A 2014 poll in the UK found that 59% of people thought the British empire was something to be proud… Read more

Marvel comics' Fresh Start looks like a return to old cliches

Another year, another relaunch at Marvel comics: on Tuesday, it was announced that it is revamping… Read more

Rainsongs by Sue Hubbard review – healing and loss

Landscape and seascape are central to poet Sue Hubbard’s elegiac story of loss and valediction.… Read more

What's the difference between a troll and a sockpuppet?

The latest in the story of Russian meddling in last year’s US election is that the Russians ran a… Read more

Nefertiti’s Face by Joyce Tyldesley review – the creation of an Ancient Egyptian icon

Even with her blinded left eye, Nefertiti has come to epitomise female perfection. Uncannily… Read more

The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam review – portrait of a mother goddess

In this elegant account, Aida Edemariam has sketched her grandmother’s life in an Ethiopia that… Read more

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro review – debut novel from a short-story writer

After millennia joined at the hip, art and faith largely parted ways, at least in terms of art as… Read more

Lionel Shriver says 'politically correct censorship' is damaging fiction

Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need To Talk About Kevin, has warned that “politically correct… Read more

The many tongues of Lost in Books, the only bookstore in Fairfield

Walking into Lost in Books is a little like walking into a daydream. Models of hot air balloons… Read more