Book review

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (2015)

I expect we can all think of an occasion when we have felt let down by people or circumstances, forgotten, left out or overlooked. Perhaps you sometimes feel that it doesn’t really matter how good you are at something, because you’ll never get your chance to show it. There’s a lot of that in this story but I don’t suppose there were many Victorians in England in 1859 who thought life was easy. That was the year Charles Darwin published his theory on the Origin of Species. Knowledge was hard to come by. Only boys from wealthy families really had a proper opportunity to go to school. Girls might have a governess at home, or they might not. Faith does not. She smoulders at home, desperate to learn all she can about the natural sciences. She might reasonably expect to learn a little from her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, the renowned naturalist. Unfortunately while he may think he is a bit of a forward thinker in the sciences, he is utterly blind to his own daughter’s qualities. Along with the rest of Victorian England her father believes that women have inferior brains to those that men possess. He holds her in total disregard.

And that’s probably why nobody bothers to tell Faith exactly why her whole family are suddenly removing to the remote island of Vane:

For the last month the family had been living in a frozen fog of the unsaid. Looks, whispers, subtle changes in manner and gently withdrawn contact. Faith had noticed the alteration, but had been unable to guess the reason for it.

But certainly she will find out the reason, one way or another. Look if they would only talk to her properly in the first place she wouldn’t have to sneak about finding stuff out the other way. Nobody wants to be a sneak...

Oh, but I cannot. I must not give way to that.
In Faith’s mind, it was always that. She never gave it another name, for fear of yielding it yet more power over her. That was an addiction, she knew that much. That was something she was always giving up, except that she never did. That was the very opposite of Faith as the world knew her. Faith the good girl, the rock. Reliable, dull, trustworthy Faith.
It was the unexpected opportunities that she found hardest to resist. An unattended envelope with the letter peeping out, clean and tantalizing. An unlocked door. A careless conversation, unheeding of eavesdroppers.
There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry.

When her father is quite suddenly found dead in compromising circumstances Faith is bereft. But she also has the presence of mind to scoop up her father’s quite possibly incriminating papers and journals. She hides them. She reads them. And she is horrified.

Suicide or murder? Faith has to work hard to find out. She has to lie and manipulate but she isn’t the only one out there doing that. She needs an ally but has to make do with the unwilling volunteer Paul. There is no chemistry between them. They don’t like each other. They don’t trust each other. Faith sort of binds him to her by sheer force of character.

By the end of this story the whole Sunderly family will be beholden to Faith and her natural inquisitiveness...although, by the end of this story the Sunderly family will be torn apart and reconfigured with a more even balance of power. It turns out that some of those men who think they have such marvellous brains are quite capable of behaving in disgraceful, shameful, deceitful ways. And as for the Lie it a Lie Tree or call it a Tree of Knowledge; turns out it’s a bit addictive and we all like to taste the fruit, boys and girls.

Compelling reading this one. Absolutely loved it. Nicely drawn characters all quite difficult to read because they’ve all got a bit of good in them as well as a bit of bad. The plot is wild and fantastical. It’s a fabulously contorted murder mystery. And it’s a scouring observation of social inequality, gender and class. You might recognise some of it. Some of it still persists.

What can I read next?

Well for a start, you can read anything else by Frances Hardinge. She is an imaginative and unpredictable writer:

  • Cuckoo Song
  • Fly by night
  • Fly Trap
  • A Skinful of Shadows

If you have enjoyed meeting the Victorian scientists and some of their whacky ideas, and you haven’t already read His Dark Materials, you might like to look at Philip Pullman’s trilogy set in an alternative Victorian world where scientific research has gone alarmingly astray:

Or you could have a look at the brilliant Lockwood and Co series by Jonathan Stroud set in an alternative kind of society with strange Victorian style ghost problems:

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