“The Hazel Wood” is the name of Althea Proserpine’s estate. Althea has one book to her name, a collection of dark fairy tales: “Tales from the Hinterland.” In it, she writes like a war reporter sending back notices from the field of battle. The book cannot be had for love or money. Those who have read the stories are obsessed with them. Any snippets posted online are instantly taken down. Ms. Proserpine has a massive internet following, brimming with fan theories and rumors of conspiracy. No one has seen her in years.
Althea is the also mother of Ella, and the grandmother of Alice, our protagonist.
“My mother was raised on fairy tales,” Alice tells her reader, “but I was raised on highways.” Alice has grown up fleeing a strange kind of bad luck that seems to follow her and her mother where ever they go. But on this day, Alice’s mother gets a letter, telling them that Althea has died and Ella believes their bad luck may finally come to an end. She couldn’t be more wrong.
The Hazel Wood is Melissa Albert’s debut novel. She knows a thing or two about fine writing. She drops the titles of literary speculative-fiction greats from her protagonist’s mouth like the names of celebrities. Like the pedigree of Alice, Albert hammers home the tradition she is writing in. You can’t miss it.
Albert is also the founding editor of the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog, and managing editor of BN.com. She knows her YA tropes and subverts them with wicked glee. But there is more to Albert’s writing that just flipping tropes around for the fun of it. Alice’s decent into the Hinterland is an interrogation of the European fairy tale. Albert peels back Disney-fication like a scab, then scraps away at the moralizing platitudes of the Brothers Grimm as well, until we are plumbing the Jungian depths of faerie trauma in the dreamlike world of the Hinterland.
Mesopotamian mythic cycles act as prototypical archetypes for a lot of writing in the European tradition. If the male hero’s journey rests atop the structure of the Gilgamesh epic, then the skin and muscle of Albert’s very female saga hang from the skeleton of Inanna’s descent into the underworld.
Inanna is an ancient Mesopotamian goddess/queen of heaven. She decides to visit her sister, who is queen of the underworld, and passes through seven gates on the way down. Inanna must hand over a piece of her regalia at each one. Finally, naked and stripped of all her power, she confronts her sister, who kills her. Inanna can only escape back into life if some living person is willing to trade places with her in the underworld.
Warning: Spoilers from here on out!
Alice makes this decent. We would expect nothing less from the women of a family with a name like Proserpine.
As a child on the run, she idealizes her grandmother, and Althea’s fairyland. Alice dreams of her grandmother's luxurious house, palatial even, with green lawns and swimming pools. Alice wants to go visit Althea, despite her mother’s attempts to shield and warn. Alice’s childhood memories are strange and murky. She has half-remembered visions of trauma. She remembers stopping for pancakes when she was ten with a strange red-haired man who abducts her, promising to take her to meet her grandmother.
After hearing of Althea’s death, Ella and Alice move to Manhattan. Ella marries a rich man (king), with a daughter (step-sister), lives in a penthouse apartment (palace). Alice comes home from her new, swanky, private high-school one day to find her mother has been abducted, possibly by monsters from her grandmother’s stories. The inhabitants of fairy land have crossed the boarders and invaded reality. Alice hooks up with Ellery Finch, a wealthy student from her school. Ellery is also a fanboy, whose privilaged position has given him the opportunity to own, however briefly, a copy of Althea's book. There may be a romantic spark, but it is buried under the fact that they are using each other to get to the Hazel Wood and find the door to fairyland. They each feel they have good reasons. Alice is looking for her kidnapped mother, and Ellery has no desire to keep living in this world. Ellery gets his wish, though not in the way he wanted. At the first gate, Ellery is Alice’s first loss.
Alice is fierce. Many, many reviewers faulted her for being “unlikable,” a criticism that I find disingenuous, since it is seldom leveled at monstrous male protagonists. Alice’s persistent demands that doors be opened to her echo Inanna’s ultimatum:
This turns out to have been the problem all along. Alice actually is a story, rescued by Ella from the horrific fate of having to live through the cycle of a monstrous plot over and over again for eternity. Since Alice has broken through to our world, the denizens from fairyland slip through, drawn to Alice, and devouring the living closest to her. Alice is both the problem and the solution.
Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers write about this type of character in their textual analysis of the books featuring "girl" in the title that have filled NYT bestseller lists over the past decade: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. This is a character, Archer says, that our culture has not figured out how to, in her words, "solve." These characters are called "girls," not "women," because they are trapped in moments they cannot move beyond. They are wronged women, made monstrous, both the problem and the solution. They are the Medeas, the Gorgons, the sea-witches. Their stories, if they can escape them, do not end with happily ever after. Alice is such a character.
The Story Spinner in the heart of fairyland is the dark sister of death to Alice’s Inanna. We first see the Spinner styled as a buxom wench serving brews in a pub, but this is just a costume. The Spinner creates stories that run in perpetual cycles and Alice's story has been missing it's monster for seventeen years. It is an inversion of the Sleeping Beauty. For seventeen years Alice has been alive in the real world while the rest of the characters in her story slept in a stuttering loop of time. Now, Alice steps from a childhood, where her mother raised her as a person, to womanhood, where the Spinner directs her to abandon personhood and become solely a signifier. It is an experience common among women - as a fourteen-year-old model under the male gaze of the photographer being told "you know what to do."
The Story Spinner convinces Alice that if she just steps back into her story she may be able to change it. Alas, Alice cannot, it seems. It is a feminized inversion of Pinocchio: Alice moves from real girl to monstrous puppet. Once in the story, Alice forgets who she is apart from the narrative within which the Spinner binds her. The Alice from the real world is, effectively, dead. But there are still a couple of chapters to go, perhaps there is hope.
The Hazel Wood is a book about a book of stories that live in the psyches of its fanatics. They carry Althea's stories around in their minds as partial narratives, incomplete memories that smell of truth and are echoed in the experiences of reality. At their peril readers ignore the darker warnings, and look for the door to fairyland. In Albert’s book, a reader may find it.