This is a book about lies: the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves – not just little white lies, but great big belters – used in this case, to carry the plot forward – but also, lies that can blind us to the truth, and which, on being revealed, bring us back to ourselves, however painful this process may be.
It is hard to talk about Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree without giving away crucial elements to its intriguing plot. The cover and blurb may lead the reader to believe this is a standard fantasy novel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hardinge’s genius is to take elements of fantasy, and weave them into a meticulously researched historical novel.
We meet the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, his wife Myrtle, and children, fourteen-year-old Faith and young brother Howard, on a post boat which is taking them out to the small island of Vane. We learn immediately that the Reverend is one of the mid 19th century’s breed of naturalists and fossil hunters, that her mother is adept at using her womanly wiles to negotiate the difficult circumstances she finds herself in, that Faith has been fighting against society’s expectations ever since she started to share her father’s interest in natural history, and that above all, Erasmus has been forced to flee his parish, accused of being a liar and a cheat.
On arrival on the island, Faith is concerned by her father’s furtive and increasingly unbalanced behaviour. When he dies in mysterious circumstances, Faith is determined to discover the truth about him and his obsession with the mysterious plant that ‘eats lies and feeds secrets’. Only by proving that her father was murdered, can she prevent the fate of a suspected suicide of burial in an unmarked grave. ‘Like gamblers who had lost too much to stop betting’, once started on this path, Faith cannot turn back, and yet as the lies she tells to feed the tree spread, events inevitably spiral out of control.
I have to admit that I raced through the Lie Tree, whose intricate plotting leads us up many blind alleys before revealing the truth. Hardinge’s gripping plot, is combined with a moving portrait of a young woman growing up in the Victorian era. She is frustrated by the many ways in which she is prevented from expressing herself, from the clothes she wears, to the thoughts and ideas that are not appropriate for a woman to voice out loud in society. She also fears for her young brother, who is being forced to use his right hand when he is naturally left-handed.
The powerful portrait of a young girl growing up in an age when women were not meant to be clever reminds me of Elizabeth Garrett Andersen, the first woman to qualify as a doctor and surgeon in Britain, who grew up in my mother’s house in Aldeburgh. Many thought her ambitions disgraceful. In an age in which Ruskin is said to have doubted ‘bonnets’ could cope with his classes, how determined these women must have been, and how brave.
The fascinating snapshot of the creation versus evolution debate, took me back to my A levels, when I read Father and Son by Edmund Gosse and wept. Gosse’s memoir of his stern and religious father, a naturalist who rejects his contemporary Charles Darwin’s theories is very relevant here.
As women in the west we owe our freedom to speak up, to gain an education, to vote for what we believe in, to women like Faith. As a customer reminded me yesterday, it is a battle that is still being fought in many parts of the world.
‘ …perhaps some other later girl, leafing through her father’s library, would come across a footnote in an academic journal, and read the name ‘Faith Sunderly’. Faith? She would think. That is a female name. A woman did this. If that is so … then so can I. And the little fire of hope, self-belief and determination would pass to another heart.’
Francis Hardinge is second only to Philip Pullman in winning the overall Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Prize for her prize-winning entry in the children’s category. Like the Northern Lights trilogy, and indeed all great children’s books, the Lie Tree deserves to be read by young and old alike. In a culture that historically gives very little press coverage to children’s books, this is a very exciting achievement, and one that is wholly deserved.