Even when I’m reading a proper physical book rather than an e-galley I try not to read too much about a title before I start it. I might glance at the blurb but I will avoid other people’s reviews and the like – I quite like doing my own discovering. Often the blurb will give you a very accurate idea of what sort of book you are getting – a historical novel of the 14th century, a Regency romance or a children’s adventure story with rabbits – but sometimes it will appear to be one thing when you start reading and then, rather wonderfully, become something else entirely. The Hazel Wood turned out to be just such a story.
At first the story involves Alice – who is seventeen, lives with her mother, step-father and step-sister, and goes to school and works weekends in a coffee shop. She and her mother spent many years moving around before this marriage: bad luck had dogged them all Alice’s life. Her earliest memories are of leaving – midnight flits, long car journeys and being made to feel unwelcome in a series of spare rooms and sofas. At first I thought this would be a novel about a feisty teen learning how to take her place in the more affluent, privileged world she finds herself in but then, well, it all started to go a lot darker. The cover suggests that we may be about to enter the world of crime fiction or psychological thrillers but no – this is the world of magic, the supernatural and of fairy-tales.
Alice’s grandmother wrote a bestselling book of dark fairy tales set in a world called The Hinterland. But Alice has never met Althea Proserpine, her grandmother, the book is impossible to find (no matter how much money you offer) and after news of her death Alice’s mother vanishes in mysterious circumstances. Although she has spent her whole life being told never to go near The Hazel Wood, Althea’s home, she heads there with Ellery Finch, a school friend and Hinterland superfan. And this is the point where the Hinterland drags Alice in: the point where she discovers the truth about her identity and fights to escape her destiny.
I’ve seen a few reviews for this book (after I’ve written this far in mine) which are quite negative. They find Alice to be an unlikable character, full of anger and privilege, and they don’t like the fact that, although the book is a YA fantasy it is in a very real and contemporary setting for much of the book. They have issues, in particular, with how Alice relates to Ellery Finch – who is mixed race – and feel she considers her early life of poverty and drifting to be worse than the attitude he faces as a person of colour. I’m not denying any of these things occur but, without giving away any major plot twists, they are there on purpose. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, she’s not bad. She’s just written that way…