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.