Hazel is 13 and watching the Epsom Derby with her father. It's June 4th, 1913 and a woman in a dark coat steps out in front of the King's horse to be trampled to death. The event, understandably, makes a strong impression on Hazel and starts her on a journey of discovery that will span the geographical distance between London and The West Indies, and the psychological distance between the sheltered existence of a bourgeois childhood and a much more grown up awareness of a young woman.
A lot happens in "Hazel": despite the main character being quite introspective, the action rolls on at a good speed and with a mixture of humour and heartbreak. As befits a decent coming of age story, there is a crisis (in fact, two crises) that leads to a new level of self-awareness and maturity for the heroine. At the beginning of the story, Hazel is living a very sheltered existence indeed: a comfortable townhouse in London with servants, a Very Girly bedroom, a day school for daughters of gentlemen, a father that is In Sugar and a mother - slightly bohemian, vegetarian and spending her days in the Battersea Dogs' Home. Her inquires about suffragettes are not welcome - most people, including those of her own sex consider them to be dolally womenand the subject is not deemed appropriate for Hazel's young and sensitive ears. Hazel is a strong-minded girl with a need for independence and the idea of making a stand in a name of more rights for women appeals to her growing need for rebellion and self-assertion.
When her own plotting gets mixed up with a major family crisis, she gets sent to the West Indies, where the family sugar plantation is. The plantation is run by her grandparents, who are good to Hazel but long for the Good Old Days, reminded by the whip that's still hanging on the wall of the barn. The black workers moving around mysteriously fascinate Hazel, and when mysterious writing starts to appear on her desk, she is compelled to discover yet more family secrets.
Julie Hearn has written several historical novels for teenagers which have been applauded for their excellent storytelling and being well anchored in realities of a particular time. "Hazel" is similar, and although the events take place less than 100 years ago, the social realities surrounding Hazel are not that much closer to what's familiar to the modern Western teenager than the times of the witch hunts or the Crusades. This is very well depicted: the excruciating class sensibilities (although it's not impossible that the students of modern public schools might be less removed from those than this reviewer is imagining), the ideas about females of sensitive disposition; and the suffocating notions of propriety that stem directly from the mixture of class and gender prejudices, mixed with hypocrisy that must necessarily follow: sexual, political and family related.
The large-scale historical context is, obviously, formed on one hand by the burgeoning Suffragette movement, on the other by the existence of the colonial Empire which was then at its peak. These are brought to life by Hazel's engagement, and as she's ignorant of them and learns so do the readers with her.
There are also timeless psychological dynamics any teenager can identify with: first sexual stirrings; striving for friendship and acceptance of the peers and, most of all, reformulating the relationship with parents and finding out that the ones that seemed heroic and perfect can be fallible and weak, while the ones that were irritatingly embarrassing have surprising strengths on offer.
I enjoyed "Hazel" and I think any reader, especially a female one aged 11-16 will find this book a stimulating, engaging read. It offers a mixture of historical background and age-appropriate psychology. It is a great yarn, a story to immerse oneself in and enjoy energetic action, sympathetic characters and the satisfactory, fulfilling resolution.
Paperback 368 pages
This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk.
The review copy was sent by the publisher - thank you!
Sweet but dull - that's how life has always been for Hazel Louise Mull-Dare. With money pouring in from the family's Caribbean sugar plantation, a father who spoils her rotten, and no pressure to excel in anything whatsoever, her future is looking as prim and proper as one of her hats. But on the day of the Epsom Derby - June 4th, 1913 - everything changes. A woman in a dark coat steps out in front of the King's horse, dying days later from her injuries. Who was she and why did she do it? Hazel is determined to find out. But finding out leads her into worse trouble than she could ever have imagined. It leads to banishment. To secrets that have festered, and a shame that lingers on. To madness and misunderstanding in the place where sugar cane grows. Sweet but dull - that's how life used to be for Hazel Louise Mull-Dare. Not any more.