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3/5: The Lie Tree, Francis Hardinge

The Lie Tree - Frances Hardinge

Fourteen-year-old Faith and her Victorian family are forced to flee mainland England for a quieter island off the coast of France. But scandal has followed them, and when her father is murdered, Faith must break free of her extremely binding social conventions to bring some justice to his memory.

When a book has paragraphs like this one:

"She had tumbled off the safe, hallowed shore of childhood, and now she was in no-man's-water, neither one thing nor another, like a mermaid. Until she dragged herself up on the rock of marriage, she was difficult."

...you know this might be a bumpy ride. Purple prose like that litters the early pages of the book, and it staggers and reels for the first few hundred pages or so, apparently seeking a plot.

I read that paragraph to my wife who said, "If I'd read that, I'd put the book down right there and then."

But I stuck with it because I'm not someone who relishes the thought of a didn't-finish. It did take its time to get moving in a direction - two hundred pages, give or take, and only when Faith's father is murdered.

As usual in young-adult fiction, the adults are useless, and it's entirely up to Faith to sort the murder out. Further constraining her is the setting: The number of things a Victorian girl can't do is quite startling 150 years later. She can't go out alone, or at night, she can't be alone with a man or even a boy her age and be less than ten feet from them. She's encumbered and corseted (literally and figuratively) by the clothes she wears, by the society that regards her as invisible and incapable. She will not be attending school or furthering her education for much longer. Her interest in natural history and science can only be expanded by picking at the crumbs her father drops.

But Faith is like a Judo champion, twisting the forces opposing her so they work in her favour, taking the expectations of the men (and women) around her and slamming them to the ground. There's a nice twist at the reveal of the murderer when Faith realises she's party to that short-sighted sexism as much as anyone.

A word or two about the reveal of the murderer...to me, it seemed very Agatha Christie. Information we couldn't possibly know suddenly turns up three pages before it happens, making it impossible to solve for those playing along at home.

There's a nice sense of place and time throughout, a very solid feel to the island and the physical, emotional, social and intellectual restraints placed on a young woman and widows and families in the 1860s.

Faith is not a particularly nice character, not exactly pleasant to be around. She has only one ally on the island, and she tolerates him only because she needs a male partner. She's bratty and sullen, a typical teenager a hundred years before the word existed.

I'm a long way into this review and I haven't mentioned The Lie Tree. Its origins are left nicely vague, open to a scientific interpretation or a spiritual one. Faith and her father approach it from different ends and almost meet in the middle. An unanswered question is whether the tree grew because of the lies Faith told, or whether it would have done so anyway.

A tree that feeds on lies and gives out a fruit filled with knowledge (although that knowledge is extremely vague and abstract) has obvious Biblical overtones, but there's more to the symbolism to that. The lies that Faith feeds it twist and grow as quickly as the plant does.

I was surprised that Faith didn't see it for the honey trap it was. I imagined she would already be someone accustomed to lies, and would know how they grow and thicken without much effort. And like their modern equivalent, the Meme, they don't need much watering.