Book review: The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge

Faith Sunderly arrives on the isle of Vane in the midst of a terrible family scandal, bundled into a dark, unsettling house with her father, mother, and brother, when a terrible and bizarre sequence of events unfolds, thrusting her into adulthood. The latest from the pen (well, keyboard) of Frances Hardinge is absolutely outstanding, though I expected nothing less, and it makes for a dark look into human nature that is precisely the sort of thing I love to read.

The setup: Set in Victorian England, the story revolves around an act of deception committed by Faith’s father, a once-noted geologist. At a time when people are hotly debating the theory of evolution and some people are coming down on the wrong side and others on the right, her father has entered the fray with a fossil that appears to suggest evidence that angels once existed on Earth, but there’s a problem: It’s pretty clearly a fake. The family retreats to Vane, where her father is invited to check out a new and exciting dig while recovering from the cloud on his reputation.

Though she trusts in her father, Faith wants to get to the bottom of what happened here and why, and that’s accelerated when her father dies — she thinks he was murdered, and others think he committed suicide. As she combs through his papers, she finds reference to a botanical specimen he collected while traveling, a strange tree that lives in total darkness and thrives on lies. If you feed it a lie, it will produce a fruit that will tell you a secret. The bigger the lie, the better the secret.

The existence of the lie tree explains some of her father’s actions, but it opens up entirely new ones as she decides she wants to harness it in her investigation. And this is where The Lie Tree gets particularly interesting. Because this book could be read in a number of different ways. The tree itself is clearly supernatural, but how supernatural is it? On the one hand, you could interpret the secrets delivered by the fruit as truths that lead Faith closer to understanding what happened to her father. On the other, you might consider the fruit simply a hallucinogenic plant product that loosens her mind enough for Faith to face the realities of her father’s past and the family’s history. Both readings are valid, and both lead you in very different and interesting directions.

Hardinge is outstandingly good at what she does — she uses beautiful, slightly sparse prose here to paint a picture of a bluestocking frustrated by the limitations society puts on her, and desperate to make her own way in the world. In Faith, she gives us a young woman surrounded by people telling her that young women cannot do what she most longs to do, and a young woman put in charge of looking after her brother rather than pursuing her dreams.

We also get rich glimpses of the reality of the era, as for example when Faith’s mother appears to be coldly calculating as she flirts with men after her husband dies, when she’s actually making a desperate bid to sway the results of the inquest because if her husband is ruled a suicide, the crown will confiscate their property. She did her homework exceptionally well and it shows through in peeps and glimpses, rather than being ostentatiously paraded all over the book — instead, she makes the characters do the work.

Crafting a plot like this also takes a delicious degree of skill — any book can be interpreted in lots of different ways by its readers and can be drafted with the goal of creating conflicting reads, but not everyone succeeds when it comes to this kind of specialty skill. I could read The Lie Tree through and take away an impression of the tree as an almost living entity, a conscious agent in the plot, a deeply supernatural element. Or I could read it through again and see the tree as a standin that allows Faith to pursue her father’s murderer without quite owning up to how much of the work she is doing on her own. The tree is by turns guide and enabler, and it’s delightful to be able to pick up and pull at these different threads.

This is the kind of book that isn’t just readable again and again: It is meant to be read again and again, developing more depth, complexity, and tone as the reader engages with it on different levels, getting new things out of it. I’m looking forward to future rereads of The Lie Tree, and to exploring how my interpretation of the events in the book shifts depending on my mood and what I’m thinking about. This is a book with a simultaneously deeply unreliable narrator and a rock-steady one with unerring clarity of judgment, and somehow these things are able to exist at the same time without creating a singularity in the reader’s brain, which is a pretty nifty trick.

Image: persimmons, andrea castelli, Flickr