Faith, magic, and science converge in Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree.
On the small island of Vale, something unnatural this way comes. Is it wicked? Perhaps, but it is quickly evident in Hardinge’s newest tale—following her acclaimed Cuckoo Song (2015)—that things are not what they seem, and the answers to such questions are rarely black and white. As 14-year-old Faith Sunderly and her family arrive at their new home, many questions swirl in the girl’s head. It isn’t long before she learns that their exodus from Kent has less to do with an ongoing excavation on Vale than it does with escaping scandal. After catching a glimpse of one of her father’s private letters, she understands that he, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned naturalist, has been accused of faking his most famous fossil discovery.
Faith meets this news with incredulity: “His bleak and terrible honesty were the plague and pride of the family.” She bears a fierce love for her stern and distant father, which is underpinned by an unrequited yearning for his affection and approval. Despite possessing a highly intelligent and inquisitive mind, the reverend’s daughter is never permitted to be anything but dutiful and demure; unlike her six-year-old brother, Howard, who ignites his father’s pride simply by being a boy.
Throughout the novel, Faith is thwarted by limits placed on her gender. In 1868, the roles of women, science, and religion are under scrutiny and often at odds with one another; Darwin’s The Origin of Species is only nine years old, and its ideas of evolution are beginning to knock against the teachings of the church. Faith, who has spent hours reading the scientific volumes of her father’s library, longs (in vain) to be part of these heated debates, even as the local doctor informs her that the small female skull makes it impossible for women to be intellectuals. As these injustices are bandied about, Faith feels not only incensed and confused but also ashamed for masking her own cleverness so that she might be thrown a scrap of worthwhile conversation: “Rejection had worn Faith down . . . . Even so, each time she pretended ignorance, she hated herself and her own desperation.”
These concerns are interwoven with a story of intrigue and, possibly, murder. From the outset, Reverend Sunderly’s behavior is strange. He is secretive and disappears for hours to care for a plant no one is permitted to see. When Faith interrupts her father one evening, he is forced to take her into his confidence. Thrilled by this moment of bonding, Faith agrees to help him relocate his precious plant in the dead of night, but come morning, the reverend’s body is discovered with a broken neck. She is positive that someone is behind his death, and she takes it upon herself to discover who. Faith finds some answers in the reverend’s journal, but it contains even more mysteries—prime among them the plant she recently helped him to hide: the Mendacity Tree.
Though layered, the plot refuses to sag, driven as it is
by mystery, taut atmosphere, complex characters,
and Faith’s insatiable curiosity.
According to her father, a man of science and reason, this rare specimen feeds not on sunshine but on lies, from which it bears a fruit that will reveal great truths to the person who consumes it. Faith can’t help but wonder whether this tree, seemingly the stuff of fairy tales, might show her what happened to her father. And so she follows in the reverend’s footsteps: she conducts scientific research on the plant and nurtures it with lies, the ramifications of which outstrip both logic and imagination.
There is an effortless beauty to Hardinge’s writing, which ranges from frank to profound. Though layered, the plot refuses to sag, driven as it is by mystery, taut atmosphere, complex characters, and Faith’s insatiable curiosity. The 2015 winner of the UK’s Costa Book of the Year Award, this novel is the first children’s book since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (2000) to receive the honor, and both books use the lens of fantasy to observe a young girl caught in the cross fire of science and religion—though Hardinge’s touch is more nuanced. It is a book in which no details are wasted and each chapter brings a new surprise. Readers of historical fiction, mystery, and fantasy will all be captivated by this wonderfully crafted novel and the many secrets hidden within its pages.
This review first appeared in the March 15, 2016, issue of Booklist.