The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge Review
A bewitching book that transcends classification and transfixes imagination
If ever we needed proof that so-called children’s books are not just for children, look no further than The Lie Tree (Macmillan, 2015). The spellbinding book won both the Costa Book of the Year and the Children’s Book of the Year 2015 – a feat only previously achieved by Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass in 2001. It’s fair to say that The Lie Tree has a lot to live up to… and I’m thrilled that it didn’t let me down.
The novel tells the story of the Sunderly family, who flee to the remote island of Vane under mysterious circumstances concerning the head of the household, Reverend Erasmus. Our protagonist is the Reverend’s daughter, appropriately named Faith, who uncovers that her father has been accused of false scientific claims which have foiled his reputation in London after being reported in the newspaper. The family hope to outrun the rumours on the island, but find that bad news travels fast.
Despite their best efforts, the Sunderly family are shunned on the island, much to the horror of Faith’s well-to-do mother, Myrtle. Completing the family is Howard, Faith’s six-year-old brother who is chastised for being left-handed. Not long after their arrival, the Reverend is found dead, hanging from a tree over a cliff edge. Believed to be suicide from the shame of being labelled a fraud, Faith is determined to prove that her father did not take his own life – he was murdered. Her investigation introduces her to a tree unlike any other; one that flourishes on lies and bears the fruit of secrets.
The story is utterly original and captivating, without a cliché to be found amongst the pages. Hardinge mixes science with sorcery to create a fairytale that is grounded in the real world, allowing us to believe the mysterious lie tree could actually exist. The way she unravels the story and reveals the intricate details of her plot is masterful, as the pace is kept rapid throughout the book. It is a joy to read a novel that sweeps you along each page without losing your attention for a moment. As a notoriously slow reader, I often have to force myself to trudge through chapters, but I found myself unwilling to put The Lie Tree down. The chapters are also broken into manageable chunks, which means you can take the story at your own pace.
Hardinge packs so much into her take on misogynistic Victorian society, propelled by our ambitious protagonist, touching on taboo subjects with enchanting eloquence and ease. A feminist force, Faith refuses to be constrained by society’s belief that women cannot – and should not – be as clever as men, aspiring to follow in the footsteps of her father down the path of science. With a thirst for knowledge, Faith is inquisitive and daring, often manifesting in behaviour that is deemed unladylike for the age she lives in. It is exactly this rebellious nature that makes Faith so likeable and engaging, as she battles to uncover the truth of her father’s scandal and subsequent demise.
Not only is Faith a compelling character, Hardinge has taken the time to develop a convincing supporting cast around her, none more so than her mother. Myrtle is the personification of propriety, forever striving to keep up appearances despite being ostracised from the society she longs to impress. Though Faith abhors her mother’s behaviour, Myrtle’s motives are cunning and resourceful, as she knows fine well that women must use the assets they are born with to survive in this world. As she tells her daughter:
“Women find themselves on battlefields just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.”
The fantastical element of the lie tree is rooted in symbolism, as it can only thrive in darkness and grow when the lies whispered to it take on a life of their own. However, Faith soon discovers that there is no such thing as a white lie when she has to confront the consequences of her falsehoods. The tree epitomises the darkness shrouding the novel, as it becomes clear the lengths people will go to in their search for knowledge and power.
Beautifully written, ingeniously crafted and undeniably clever, The Lie Tree is a book that transcends age. Unrestrained by the shackles of children’s classification, Hardinge’s seventh novel will speak to anyone willing to pick it up and listen.