The Lie Tree
Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books, 2016

26118377I was provided a copy of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Lie Tree was recently awarded the prestigious Costa Prize, not just in its own category of children’s book but as the overall “book of the year,” only the second time a children’s book has won since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. I was aware of the acclaim with which this novel has been received, and I’ve been immensely impressed with Hardinge’s previous work, so I had high expectations. They were not disappointed. This is a brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Faith Sunderland arrives with her family on the island of Vane, a fictional Channel island off the south coast of Britain. Her father, an amateur archeologist of some repute, has been invited to join a dig on the island, but Faith discovers that he is running away from a scandal, accused of falsifying historical evidence. Along with the family, a snake, many notes and papers, the Reverend Sunderland brings a cutting from a mysterious plant, which, it turns out, feeds on lies but provides visions and secret knowledge to those who eat its fruit. Soon, the family has to deal with not just suspicious islanders and the scandal, but with the Reverend Sunderland’s death under mysterious circumstances, apparently suicide. Faith is convinced it is a murder, and she has to feed the tree with lies of her own in order to uncover the truth.

This is probably the darkest of Hardinge’s novels so far. It lacks the wild exuberance of the stories of Mosca and her goose, or the fantasy of such as Gullstruck Island. It is at once a murder mystery, a Gothic, a morality tale and a coming of age story. I see it classified as a historical novel, but I think to some extent that’s a misnomer, as it relies not on historical events so much as a historical zeitgeist – the moment in time when Darwin’s theories of evolution are having their impact and when society is on the cusp of change. The characters are to a great extent who they are, forced into the roles they exist in, because of the time in which they live.

We may at first find many of the characters unattractive, but this is to a large part because we see them through Faith’s eyes, and our view of them expands as hers does. I found Faith a completely sympathetic character: I admired her gumption, her guts, her courage, her ability ultimately to move beyond her own beliefs and biases. She is self-aware, and becomes more so as the novel progresses. I loved the streak of feminism that ran quietly through the novel: the way that Faith realizes she herself had been ignoring women as “the devoted wife” or “the housekeeper” and is able to change her views not only of her own potential role but also of her mother and other women around her (for example, there’s a delightful hint of a “special friendship” between two women that emerges towards the end of the novel).

Philosophically, there’s a lot going on. It’s a commentary on – yes – faith, on the science/superstition binary that is not as clear cut as might be assumed, on human nature, on greed, on how easy it is to make people believe what you want them to believe.

It’s a great book – I want to read it again and talk about it more and think about it more. It is complex and clever and richly deserves the acclaim it has received so far.