Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

I love Frances Hardinge. One of the reasons that I'm very wary of books set in the Victorian era is down to 1) my deep love for the Victorian era and 2) for about 4 years, I only read Victorian literature and any attempts to replicate the insanely rich tone and feel of that time often seem half-arsed and irritatingly patchy. Hardinge nails it from the first page. She obviously has a real and magical affinity for the period- her novels immerse you in the 19th century so thoroughly and yet so subtly that I genuinely think she's some kind of time traveller, because she makes me feel like one so successfully. The novel is filled with vivid Victorian flavour; post-mortem photography, craniology, ratting, the flamboyance of full mourning...

In a world where Origin of Species has uprooted the religious roots of the known, as Creation crumbles to Evolution and the human race starts to question its place in the world, Hardinge forces the reader to think about women's role in society, about nature and nurture and about the poisonous power of lies.

The Lie Tree deals with the impossibility of being a teenage girl (not a smooth ride at the best of times) with a fierce need to learn and scientific ambitions in Victorian society. As a female, 14 year old Faith Sunderly is expected to be good, be humble, be unassuming, until she can be married and become someone else's responsibility. The book begins with Faith and her family; the beautiful, delicate mother Myrtle, renowned Natural Scientist father the Rev Erasmus Sunderly, hanger-on Uncle Miles and younger brother Howard on a drizzly ferry from Kent to a remote island- ostensibly so Miles and Erasmus can lend Scientific weight and respectability to an archaeological dig in process on the island. Faith, however, has her suspicions. A deep curiosity, nimble fingers and a liar's tongue has furnished her with enough information to know that her family are fleeing scientific scandal and that there is more to her family's flight than meets the eye.

Faith is devoted to her father- she dreams of following in his footsteps to become a Natural Scientist. She has convinced herself that the two share a deep bond, that she is his protegee, that he is proud of her. She is forced to reconsider, hearing such encouraging lessons as; “Listen, Faith. A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing. Do you understand?”from her beloved patriarch. When Faith's father is found dead the morning after she assists him with hiding a mysterious and valuable specimen in a nearby seacave, the magistrate writes it off as suicide. Unconvinced, Faith vows to find her father's killer, to continue his scientific research and to study the specimen that she believes led him to his death- the tree in the cave. According to his diaries, the tree feeds on lies and reveals home truths, but Faith does not believe that a rational, scientific man like her father could believe such superstitious nonsense. She sets about studying it in detail.

The rest of the novel follows Faith's journey to the truth via a selection of lies; some small, some gigantic that spread like wildfire across the island. She learns the power and the consequences of lies and the impact that it can have on those around her. She's a likeable character, despite the ease with which she lies, and she shows a huge amount of pluck and determination, of scientific dedication and commitment. She is willing to sacrifice her reputation for the truth, to betray her family's trust and position in pursuit of her aims. She is forced to use the intelligence that nobody would ever believe her capable of to outsmart the men of science that lock the doors of knowledge in her face. 

There are elements of the whodunnit, the traditional murder mystery combined with fantastical creation myths and apparently magical powers, and some disastrous secrets that Faith uncovers that make her rethink her opinion of her father and hero, all delivered in a masterful narrative that feels beautifully intricate and well crafted. I love FH's prose too- I love how she uses language, I love the richness of the world she creates and the beating hearts of her characters,. There's so much wit and warmth in her words, so much enthusiasm and eccentricity and heart. She is truly exceptional.

The Lie Tree has won pretty much every prize going this year, and it's a favourite for the Carnegie in June. It would be a deserving winner.

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