Title: The Lie Tree
Author: Frances Hardinge
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
Publication date: 7th May 2015
Buy at: BookDepository
The leaves were cold and slightly clammy. There was no mistaking them. She had seen their likeness painstakingly sketched in her father’s journal. This was his greatest secret, his treasure and his undoing. The Tree of Lies. Now it was hers, and the journey he had never finished stretched out before her.
When Faith’s father is found dead under mysterious circumstances, she is determined to untangle the truth from the lies. Searching through his belongings for clues she discovers a strange tree. A tree that feeds off whispered lies and bears fruit that reveals hidden secrets. The bigger the lie, and the more people who believe it, the bigger the truth that is uncovered.
But as Faith’s untruths spread like wildfire across her small island community, she discovers that sometimes a single lie is more potent than any truth.
A beguiling tale of mystery and intrigue from the award-winning author of Fly By Night and Cuckoo Song.
It is not easy being a girl. It never was. Especially so in Victorian times, when the surest way to get any female in trouble in the snap of a finger was possessing curiosity about the natural world and an inquisitive mind. To Faith Sunderly’s despair, she has both. One would think that having a natural scientist for a father – and a famous one at that – would ease her way (and her conscience) into the scientific world. Doesn’t a father give leeway to his daughter? But Faith’s proudest and only achievement happened at age eight: spotting a fossil in a beach and posing for the picture.
And so, at fourteen, Faith does what she can to get a glimpse of the news of science. She makes herself practically invisible, she serves as a nanny to her younger brother who will one day go to school, she reads everything she can. It’s not enough. If it was enough, she wouldn’t have to sneak around to discover why her family had packed their bags and left England from one day to the other. She would have known they were not moving to Vane just because her father had been called to an excavation. She would know her father’s reputation was regarded as as fake as his fossils.
The Lie Tree is a formidable book. Having read Frances Hardinge before, I knew I was about to read something special, but even my previous experiences with her had not prepared me for this.
It all begins with the genre itself. Is it fantasy? A murder mystery? A historical novel? How about all that and more? For it is also a story about feminism, family ties, gossip and lies, evolution, revenge, invisibility, and much much more. What’s more, it’s a tale where everything is woven seamlessly and with such subtlety, poignancy, and beauty of language that it’s impossible to be indifferent towards it.
This becomes even more astonishing when you take into account the character development. After all, this is very much a character driven book. And Faith does not disappoint. She begins as a daughter who is devoted to her intellectual, cold father and despises her vain, society mother, as a growing child who does her best to be a good girl and a good Christian, as a lady who “was not like other ladies”; only to discover that “neither, it seemed, were other ladies”, that sometimes it is only right to release one’s anger (even if you must defy the scripture and/or society to do so), and that there is more to her parents than meets the eye.
The splendour of it is that we too walk that path with her without missing a step. For Hardinge unravels the narrative gradually, at just the right pace, with both the elusiveness and shock of realisation, and with a number of allegories that are hard to miss. Allegories that do not necessarily hint at what is to come, but at what she might become, like having a serpent as a pet or eating the fruit of a deceitful tree. Do they ring a bell?
But do not take me wrong, this does not mean she finds an Adam and condemns them both to hell. Oh no. Remember, this is the Victorian times. To have a mind of one’s own, to find the courage to pursue one’s dreams in natural history, to understand that women are not stupider or less valuable than men, well, they are nearly akin to sin when you’re born female.
Then there is the fact that everything we encounter in the story plays a vital role in the plot, from Dr Jacklers’ obsession with the measurement of heads, to Miss Hunter’s apparent snobbishness, to Mr Lambent’s interest in science, to Jeanne’s religious zeal, to Paul’s love for photography, to Myrtle’s care with her looks. It all matters. For the characters, for the plot, and for criticism of society that The Lie Tree is ripe with.
What’s more, the prose is so atmospheric and eerie, you can feel the waves splashing your face and the claustrophobia of the village of Vane. Yuo can see the cliff drop and the Tree’s tendrils. You can taste its bitter fruit and the sharp tang of panic. And you can feel the stickiness of humidity and the creeping coldness of the house.
No, Frances Hardinge did not disappoint. She is not just a children’s fantasy writer. She is an all ages, all genres writer with a talent with the quill that would make the Bard himself envious. It is not everyone who can blend fantasy with science, feminism with history, a thrilling mystery with poetic prose, and still make the reader ache for the characters and perceive them as real. As family.
The Lie Tree is an intelligent, important book. One I hope will find its way to the hands of many girls, boys, parents, children, budding scientists, and already scientists. I hope this book grows as fast as a fed Tree. I hope you read it. You won’t soon forget it.
The book in a quote
“There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too. A few stale lessons from tired governesses, dull walks, unthinking pastimes. But it was not enough. All knowledge – any knowledge – called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen.”