The Lie Tree by Francis Hardinge
Published: April 2016
Genre: young adult/adult, gothic, historical fiction
Faith Sunderly leads a double life. To most people, she is modest and well mannered—a proper young lady who knows her place. But inside, Faith is burning with questions and curiosity. She keeps sharp watch of her surroundings and, therefore, knows secrets no one suspects her of knowing—like the real reason her family fled Kent to the close-knit island of Vane. And that her father’s death was no accident.
In pursuit of revenge and justice for the father she idolizes, Faith hunts through his possessions, where she discovers a strange tree. A tree that only bears fruit when she whispers a lie to it. The fruit, in turn, delivers a hidden truth. The tree might hold the key to her father’s murder. Or, it might lure the murderer directly to Faith herself, for lies—like fires, wild and crackling—quickly take on a life of their own.
Faith’s family was once a respectable family in Kent, thanks to her father’s station as a reverend and natural philosopher. But when his discovery at a dig receives criticism, and jeopardizes how humans place themselves relative to other creatures on the planet, the family flees for the remote island of Vane, where gossip, unfortunately, spreads like wildfire. Soon Faith’s father is found dead, and while the island is prepared to call it a suicide, Faith is certain it’s murder. Only one of his specimens, a tree that produces fruit of truth when told dark lies, holds the secret to uncovering a twisted plot; the bigger the lie, the greater the truth.
Holy hell. When this book received the Costa award in the UK, I knew it was something I had to pick up. It sounds unique, dark, chilling, a perfect crossover. And it is. It’s everything and more.
I’ve been holding back on writing a review for the book because it’s so hard to describe. It’s difficult to put to words how perfect it is. The Lie Tree is more than a story about a girl avenging her father’s murder by using a fantastical tree. In fact, this book meant so much to me as a reader that my rusty, cobwebbed academic wheels began to spin. If you need a thought-provoking book for discussion, this is it.
Beware. This “review” is essentially my 2014 graduate thesis in a nutshell. Are you ready for a novel?
…Here we go!
First, this is proper gothic literature. The muffled, dark atmosphere — a never-ending sense of foreboding, a constant feeling that one is being watched, hair-raising, spine-chilling — is all you need to develop the urgency in Faith’s quest, to really paint the unstable time in history and fluctuating dynamics of the household. While there’s a death, a creepy plant, and some bumps in the night, this isn’t blood and gore. This is proper horror, proper suspense, proper uncanny, and thus creates proper gothic.
*steps down from pedestal*
Next, we have the dualities that are so common in gothic literature. Dualities in literature make us question our beliefs, our morals, our values. They make us uncomfortable, but in a safe environment (“It’s only a book”). Faith’s father is a natural philosopher, meaning he dabbles in science and he sides with Darwin in most debates, even though he’s a reverend. He’s finding a way to combine science and religion (step one in making people at the time feel uncomfortable), but there’s another level he’s decided to tamper around. While the world is discovering dinosaurs and the expanding universe, Sunderly takes Darwin’s theory of evolution — humans come from apes — and shakes the world with his own “findings.” Ultimately, what is a human? And where are we on this ladder of life? If Earth is no longer the center of the universe, and man is no longer the center of God’s attention, who are we?
Science versus religion, man versus angel versus animal. Okay, what else on dualities?
How about gender roles and, within the female sphere, the two types of roles a woman could take on? There are some awful, pompous men in here that unfortunately reflect too many men today. Some of the mansplaining going on…! Poor Faith had to keep her mouth shut because a girl with an equal education and understanding to that of a man in his own field of study is shocking. (To the men, at least.) She’s supposed to boost his ego by eagerly hanging on to his every word, and attempting to comprehend his thoughts, views, and lessons. But Faith knows everything these “doctors” spout. She craves more — but she’s denied access because she’s 1) female and 2) barely of age.
There are loads of women in this book as well. On the surface they seem to hold the two major roles Victorian women took on: Angel in the House, and Fallen Woman. There’s also the Invisible Woman, one who is left behind to take care of the family. But as you dive into the village life and get to know these various women, you find they, like Faith, lead double lives. In fact, I think two of them may be a lesbian couple…
As I somewhat hinted, there’s another duality Faith must battle: the line between girl and woman. She’s fourteen in the novel, a gray age for Victorian females because she’s paraded in front of men but not quite formally out in society. She’s given responsibilities befitting a governess, and is sometimes trusted like a colleague instead of a daughter when she’s around her father. But something she says or does triggers the adult she’s conversing with to take a step back and mention her age. “You’re not old enough yet,” in a way. Still a child given to fancies.
And finally, the supernatural element! Every good gothic novel needs one! I especially loved this tree. It’s the Tree of Knowledge, in some sick, twisted way. Not a bright and shining tree with golden fruit befitting Eden, but a dark, slimy one, with creeping branches and a desire for wicked lies. It shrinks when light shines upon it, and every dark secret it’s told give it the opportunity to bear fruit of truth. The only way the truth can be revealed is if it’s eaten — and the consumer falls into a drugged, opium-like state (another duality: addiction/insanity versus stable/sane). Oh, but the biology of it all; it feels so real! As if this tree could exist! Is it real? Or is it fiction? Uncanny…
I could go on. I really could. Instead, I urge you to read this book.