Review: ‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge

Blurb from Amazon:

Faith’s father has been found dead under mysterious circumstances, and as she is searching through his belongings for clues she discovers a strange tree. The tree only grows healthy and bears fruit if you whisper a lie to it. The fruit of the tree, when eaten, will deliver a hidden truth to the person who consumes it. The bigger the lie, the more people who believe it, the bigger the truth that is uncovered.

The girl realizes that she is good at lying and that the tree might hold the key to her father’s murder, so she begins to spread untruths far and wide across her small island community. But as her tales spiral out of control, she discovers that where lies seduce, truths shatter . . .

Review:

I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel at first, considering that I felt a bit bewildered by Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass. I worried that- just like A Face Like Glass– it might be too surreal for me, too meandering, perhaps even too experimental in tone, plot or imagery. Yet The Lie Tree gripped me as much as any good, exquisitely detailed Victorian melodrama. For me, this novel- with its strong vein of Gothic mystery, Victorian chiller and magical realism, had shades of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and The Somnambulist by Essie Fox, one of my favourite contemporary authors.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I picked this novel up from my local library- having merely heard that it was award winning- so imagine my surprise when I found it set within the Victorian period, just after the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking The Origin of the Species. Here, the realm of rational thought, science, discovery, excavations and fossils jostles against the strict confines of Victorian everyday life, and a culture stewed in mourning. Faith, a young curious, and dangerously clever girl, rallies against the role set out her for her a dutiful, obedient, pious and meek daughter, and instead harbours a secret wish to be a natural scientist. She idolizes her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, who is passionate about scientific exploration, even though he can be at times overbearing, bullying and domineering. At the same time, Faith loves her child-like little brother, Howard, but feels aloof from her mother, Myrtle, who she dismisses as a coquettish, manipulative fashion plate. It is only after the family move to the isolated, bleak island of Vane, following an undisclosed scandal on her father’s part- that things start to unravel. (SPOILER.) Faith’s father dies after moving a rare specimen to a remote island cave, and Faith suspects his death could actually be murder. Curious and determined to find the killer, she uncovers her father’s darkest secret- a magical, mysterious tree he has brought all the way to Vane. A tree that thrives only when one tells it a lie. A tree whose fruit can reveal the truth. The same tree Reverend Sunderly hid in the depths of the cave, far from prying eyes. As Faith tries to uncover the truth, she finds herself ensnared in a web of seductive lies, and begins to lose herself, with dangerous consequences.

flowers, girl, and fantasy image

 

All in all, I found this book gripping (I finished it in about three days,) and exquisitely researched. You really feel as though you are trapped on Vane, deeply entrenched in Victorian everyday life. Clothes, food and culture have all been meticulously researched on Hardinge’s part. However, I did feel at times that some of the minor characters blended into one, and that parts of the tale (e.g. the origins of the tree,) were either farfetched or not elaborated on enough. It is also, like a lot of Hardinge’s work, pretty creepy. (SPOILER.) There are a lot of references to the Victorian custom of photographing the dead, for instance, and a particularly gruesome scene where Faith attends a ‘ratting’- i.e. a public fight between a dog and a barrel of live rats, which was commonplace in the Victorian era, particularly within the London slums. Because of this, I wasn’t sure quite whom the book was aimed at- it was marketed as being ‘12+’, and yet I could see a lot of twelve year olds being completely freaked out by this. It is very atmospheric, and chillingly evocative, but also very Gothic, with hardly any humour. A little lightness in the midst of all the ever-encroaching darkness would have been appreciated. Because of this, I feel hesitant to give TLT ten stars, as I’m not sure that I would read it again. It’s an excellent read, but also a very intense read.

-Overall rating: 8 out of 10.

-Read if you enjoy: The Somnambulist and Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris.

Note: If you’re intrigued, check out this page for wonderful illustrations of The Lie Tree by Chris Riddell, one of my favourite illustrators. Image credits: First image is from here. Second image is from here. Third image is from here.

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