A twisting tale of devotion, deceit, and manipulative vegetation
Carnegie Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 5 of 8
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is set in nineteenth-century England and tells the story of Faith, the daughter of a stern and distant rector, and the time that she and her family spend on the island of Vane. Her father, Erasmus Sunderly, is a celebrated natural scientist as well as a man of the cloth and has been invited to lend credibility to an excavation. Very quickly, the shadow of doubt is cast over his reputation and the family’s status is called into question. When Erasmus is found dead, Faith finds clues in his papers that lead her to a plant with strange powers.
Manners maketh the lady
As the novel begins and the family travel from Kent to Vane, Faith grapples with her relationship with her parents and her own position as a young intelligent woman in nineteenth-century society. Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Faith’s position as the elder daughter of a respected family is something she has to negotiate carefully and flawlessly. A toe out of line could bring scandal and her mother Myrtle’s eye is ever-watchful for signs of non-conformity that might reflect badly on the family. At the same time, Faith as a person rather than daughter-object is routinely ignored by her mother and consistently looked down on by her father despite her intelligence, as Faith herself points out to her father’s great displeasure. Faith is categorically outshone by her younger brother Howard, who holds prime position in her parents’ eyes simply because he is male.
Faith’s frustration and helplessness is palpable and the fact she finds herself at cross purposes with every member of her family chimes nicely with her position as an identity-seeking teenager, making her a sympathetic character for a modern audience. As the Sunderlies settle on Vane, I began wondering if Faith’s intelligence and interest in natural science will eventually outweigh the importance of her gender in the eyes of her family and peers.
From manners to murder mystery to fantasy
However, despite a lot of setup to do with Faith’s questioning of her role as a woman and a daughter, The Lie Tree quickly moves on to the murder mystery and fantasy elements of Hardinge’s story. Erasmus is found dead in a presumed suicide and Faith is the only one who notices the odd details that don’t add up. She sets off on a mission to prove foul play.
Then we encounter the tree itself. A macabre plant coveted by those who know of its existence and power, the mendacity tree or lie tree feeds on lies and produces a fruit that grants the eater with visions of secret truths. Faith’s lies snowball and spread among the people of Vane: she comes across as calculating and manipulative – it’s delicious. She casts off the pious, demure demeanour that her mother expects of her and, liberated, has fun discreetly sowing discord among the people who shunned her. As a result, the tree grows and grows.
Wait, I’m confused. Just what is this book about?
I can’t fault Hardinge’s writing and I like Faith as a person and a character but I felt that after this point the book became increasingly muddled in terms of which direction it was going in and what the central theme was. This was not helped by the increasingly psychedelic visions that the lie tree grants.
After the intrigue and the plot development, the story seemed to bypass the murder mystery and edge into something like Indiana Jones, with villains, hostage-taking, struggles, and a chase scene. The too-sweet all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion clashed with a beginning shrouded in fog and mystery. The lie tree itself ends up feeling rather pointless as Faith doubts the veracity of its visions, and in any case it ends up destroyed.
In terms of closure, Faith’s relationship with her father was glossed over. At the end of the book, Faith is forward-looking and optimistic but for a good chunk of the novel she had been working hard to break through to her father and, following his death, to recover his reputation. She comes into her own – which is great – but seems to put the events on Vane and thoughts of her father behind her pretty quickly.
The confrontation between Faith and her mother Myrtle is also fairly light. Myrtle explains how as a woman she is reduced to using her sexuality as the only weapon available to her to secure the family’s future, and Faith understands her a bit better for this: the pair seem closer as they leave Vane together by coach and the exchange cements Faith’s decision to differentiate herself. But Myrtle just seems too unaware of what happened on Vane to be believable.
The constant in the story is Faith and her development as a character and a person is interesting. But I had difficulty working out if the book was actually meant to be about Faith as a budding female scientist in Victorian society, or about the sometimes unforeseen repercussions of lying, or about solving a murder, or about a fantastic plant – or about all of the above. I love complicated multi-stranded narratives but I felt like The Lie Tree didn’t really tie them together in a credible way. If the focus is Faith and how she develops as a person, the entire plot is far too convoluted for me.
As the fifth book I’ve read on the Carnegie Medal shortlist, The Lie Tree is not as strong a contender as any of the other books I’ve read. Younger teen readers might enjoy the adventure and identify with Faith’s growth and ambition but the book didn’t go to the same depths as the others on this year’s shortlist and left me feeling as though I had missed something.