Women, as demonstrated by their smaller skull size, are less intelligent than men. This is the bitter lesson Faith, our plucky protagonist in Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, must learn. In Victorian England, girls must be seen and not heard, as too much intelligence would spoil the female mind “like a rock in a soufflé.” But Faith has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a secret desire of one day becoming a scientist. This dark and twisting tale sees how far she’ll pursue that knowledge and the lies she’ll tell to obtain it.
The novel opens with Faith’s family being uprooted to the craggy island of Vale. Her father is a reverend and an avid natural scientist, and Faith is relegated to follow her family in the rain on foot whilst her father’s precious plant specimens take pride of place in the family carriage. The reverend is fiercely protective over his leaf cuttings and it seems that’s not all he’s trying to hide. A scandal surrounding his recently published scientific findings has managed to follow the family to the remote isle, and shortly thereafter, Faith’s father is found dead.
In what is becoming increasingly unladylike behaviour, Faith breaks into her father’s study to see if his private papers can shed any light on what she believes is his murder. What she finds is not what she expects. Her father has made notes about the mysterious Lie Tree, and it becomes apparent that the tree is the plant specimen he has been guarding so fiercely. If you feed the tree lies, it will bear a miraculous fruit that grants the eater knowledge and truth. But as Faith’s falsehoods spread, the more powerful the tree becomes, and she is not sure where the truths begin and her lies end.
Patrick Ness (another firm YA favourite) has heralded the book as “Brilliant, dark, thrilling and utterly original.” It comes as no surprise then that The Lie Tree won the Costa Book of the Year award, after winning the Costa Children’s Book of the Year award that same year. Hers is the first “children’s” book to win both awards since Philip Pullman‘s The Amber Spyglass. I say “children’s” because the book well and truly proves that the trivial pigeonholing of our literature really bares nothing upon the scope of the audience a book can reach. With intelligent and surprising prose and a plot that twists unexpectedly, adults and children alike have much to gain from this novel.
Whilst the pacing of the final half of The Lie Tree is that of a thriller, it does take some time to build up momentum. The death of Faith’s father (which the blurb promises is the instigator for the book’s action) doesn’t happen for more than a hundred pages, and it’s difficult in those early stages of the novel to feel truly gripped until her father’s death forces Faith to take some initiative. Still, readers should push through to reap the rewards of a thrilling and moving finale.
Faith’s tale deals with big sweeping themes such as equality, religion and science, and during her journey she will come to understand that beneath their prim and proper exteriors, the women she is surrounded by are strong and ambitious and intelligent and surprising. Her final realisation is amongst the most poignant of all: Faith is not like all the other ladies, but neither, she concedes, are all the other ladies.