Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

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Paperback, 411 pages
Published May 7th 2015 by Macmillan Children’s Books
Source: Publisher

The Lie Tree is the third title I have read by British author Frances Hardinge and I am as struck with it as I was by the other two.

But first, the premise.

Faith and her family move to an unnamed island under the shadow of a scandal that accompanies her father’s anthropological findings. Rumours abound that the nephilim bones he discovered are fake and constructed by human, rather than divine, devices. Faith, despite never getting any encouragement to do so, idolizes her father. Even though all hope rests on her younger brother to follow their father and express the brilliance he is known for, it is Faith who has inherited his quickness of mind and strength of spirit. But she is a girl who will grow up to be a woman and everyone knows women cannot be clever. When her father is found dead, everyone except Faith thinks that he, unable to bear the burden of his shame of his destroyed reputation, committed suicide. Faith knows better and she is determined to prove it. That’s when she comes upon the lie tree: her father’s prized possession and his greatest shame.

I would challenge anyone who scoffs at the lack of sophistication in children’s literature to read a Hardinge novel and still hold on to their preconceived notions. Both The Cuckoo Song and A Face Like Glass were notable for the complexity of both their narratives and the language used to tell their stories. The Lie Tree is no different. Hardinge’s wordsmithery is superlative; she rules the English language with a finesse that I rarely see (and I don’t say this lightly). The subtlety with which she makes her point is remarkable. Observe:

Myrtle had once explained to Faith that there was a right way to given an order to a servant. You phrased it as a question to be polite. Will you fetch the tea? Could you please speak with Cook? But instead of your voice pitch going up at the end, you let it droop downwards, to show that it was not really a question, and they were not expected to say no.

It occurred to Faith that her mother talked to her that way all the time.

See?

The beautiful prose allows the story to unfurl gradually until all the elements are in place. Then the narrative pace increases incrementally until we are barreling to a satisfying conclusion.

I have always loved heroines whose morals are murky, who straddle the fence between good and bad. Rather than saccharine good girls who have thick white lines drawn between good and evil, I am weak for protagonists who understand (perhaps without accepting) their darker nature. I think you will agree that flawed protagonists are much more fun to read about.

Faith knows what is expected of her but her intelligence, her cleverness, refuses to let her settle for being a second-rate player in her own life. She knows the presumptions society has about women and, in her mother, she can see the undesirable (to her) qualities that make a “good” woman. But she is very much her father’s daughter and her curiousity is a hunger that she doesn’t usually try very hard to suppress. I love that Faith’s intelligence is not just pontificated about but actually manifests itself in her actions as she goes about solving her father’s murder. While she is expressed as an authentic child, the gravity and determination of will she expresses belie her young age.

The relationships she forges with the many grownups in her life, the way she manipulates the pastor’s son, her desperation to win over her father’s regard, and her ability to cede to her own limits make her into one of more compelling protagonists I have had the pleasure of reading in a while.

I also love that though fraught with hostilities initially, Faith and her mother come to an understanding and their relationship begins anew with each of them understanding and appreciating the other for what they are. Many times, in historical novels especially, the mother’s fluffiness is used as a foil for the protagonist’s more serious (and more modern) sensibilities but Hardinge takes care to be fair in her portrayal.

All said and done, The Lie Tree is a gem of a novel with as much appeal (if not more) for adult readers as middle-grade readers. It will be an awesome addition to any library. Very much recommended.