Shortly after I’d finished reading this book, I engaged in a Twitter-versation about it with another book blogger (and all-round fabulous lady, whose Twitter feed you can follow here), where we concluded that Frances Hardinge is an underappreciated genius. The Lie Tree is a ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, insofar as it is the equal – in terms of beauty, plotting, characterisation, language, setting and complexity – of all her other novels, yet at the same time it is entirely different from anything that has gone before. There is no ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, really – they are all different. She is versatile, invigorating, and never less than compelling, in everything she writes.
I’d really love to spend five minutes in her imagination.
The Lie Tree is the story of Faith Sunderly, her father Rev Erasmus Sunderly, her mother Myrtle and her younger brother Howard. It is set in the 1860s, beginning with a journey from England to an island called Vane, possibly in the English Channel, where the Sunderly family are beginning a new life. Rev Sunderly has been asked to attend an archaeological dig (because, as well as an Anglican clergyman, he is an expert in fossils – or, at least, so we think), but Faith knows from the get-go that there is something larger going on. Her family seems to be fleeing from something, and her inquisitiveness and courage soon allow her to discover that her father’s reputation is in tatters. He is suspected of intellectual fraud, and is leaving ‘society’ for a time to allow the dust to settle. On the island, the family struggles to settle in their new home, dealing with sullen staff and – as soon as word of the ‘scandal’ reaches the islanders – the disdain of their peers. No matter how far the Sunderlys run, the whiff of impropriety is hot on their heels.
Then, Faith’s father dies in mysterious circumstances. He is suspected of having taken his own life, which means he cannot be buried in consecrated ground, and the family’s desperation deepens. But Faith soon begins to suspect that the truth surrounding her father’s death is far more complex, and in her attempts to uncover what really happened, she gets drawn deep into a mystery which, ultimately, destroyed her father – and threatens to destroy her.
This story appears ‘simple’. It it true that there is no detailed world-building here, no complex magical and/or political systems nor any larger-than-life characters; it is firmly set in the Victorian period, with all the upheaval that went with that era. Darwin’s Origin of Species has just been published and its repercussions are creating pained ripples in society; science and faith are intermingled; social roles are rigid. Faith (whose name, along with the root of ‘sunder’ in her surname, seems to me a comment on the division between belief and rationality) is a highly intelligent, scientifically-minded, headstrong girl who is stymied at every turn, told she cannot live the life she wants because of her sex, and the frustration this causes her is tangible. Her brother Howard is locked into his own rigid role, forced to stifle his natural left-handedness for fear it will cripple his future prospects and assume the mantle of the ‘man’ in his family despite being barely six years old. It is the character of Myrtle, the children’s mother, who I found most intriguing; calculated, cunning and extremely clever – though not in ways which are immediately apparent to her hot-headed daughter – she is a survivor in a world which is stacked against her. Myrtle’s self-preservation in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death turns Faith’s stomach, but to the reader, what she’s doing is obvious. Myrtle knows she will be disinherited, and she has no asset besides her beauty and appeal to men, which she wastes no time in bringing to bear upon her relationships with the important men of the island. It is no surprise that her daughter finds this upsetting, but one can’t help but be consumed with a sort of admiration for Myrtle’s machinations, at the same time.
I haven’t even mentioned the lie tree itself yet, and that’s not accidental. The Tree, referred to as the Mendacity Tree by some, is the only non-realistic part of this story, and in so many ways it’s symbolic of Faith’s struggle to find out the truth about her family and her father and about the realities of life in the Victorian era, particularly on a small island. Much of the book takes place without its even being an important part of the plot. As an object in and of itself, it is a mysterious plant which feeds on lies, sprouting fruit which, when eaten, affords the consumer visions of the ‘truth’ – or a truth, at least. Faith’s father had discovered this plant years before and had been keeping it secret – but it appears not to have been as secret as he thought. Faith becomes entangled in the Tree as she searches for her father’s killer (for she is certain he did not take his own life, and knows that if she can’t prove it, her father’s estate will be confiscated by the Crown), and – as lies are wont – the Tree’s effects spread far beyond anything she intended, growing more and more complex and terrifying with every lie she feeds it.
This story is about feminism, Victorian social attitudes, the clash between religion and evolutionary belief (and the real, true agony caused by it to intelligent people of faith), the nature of lies and the nature of truth and how to disentangle them, and the impossibility of keeping a lid on salacious gossip and life-destroying lies. It is told simply, in a straightforward manner (so, very unlike some of Hardinge’s other books, but totally in character with Faith’s scientific, matter-of-fact outlook), and perhaps at the end it felt a little too well tied up, but that is the only thing I could point to as being less than entirely satisfactory. I loved this book. Frances Hardinge is, to me, an author who is constantly pushing at the boundaries of MG/YA literature and showing exactly what writing for this age group can do. This philosophical, intelligent and deeply strange book is a haunting, complex and beautifully written piece of literature, and deserves a wide readership.