Verdict: Beautifully constructed mystery that deserves (and received) the 2015 Costa Book Award.
It’s been a while since I posted a book review and I’m glad I can kick-start my posts with this novel. The Lie Tree was a delight to read; a tale woven by the masterful storyteller, Frances Hardinge.
It follows the story of Faith Sunderly, the 14-year-old daughter to Reverend Sunderly, an acclaimed natural scientist who has recently been shamed into hiding on a remote island. Faith tries hard to be a dutiful daughter as she ‘clumsily [rocks] between childhood and adulthood’, but the fact is that she has very little interest in the dresses, kid-gloves and gossip that her mother Myrtle instructs her about.
Faith is an aspiring natural scientist, with a curious mind and a knack for piecing things together. When her rather forbidding father dies on the remote island, Faith is the only one with enough scraps of fact to be sure it was murder. Faith dares her reputation and her life to catch her father’s killer.
When I began The Lie Tree, I remember thinking the pace was too slow, even though there was an obvious build-up happening in the narrative. Despite this, when my attention caught (three relatively short chapters in), it really caught. I read every moment I could from then on: on train journeys, at lunchtimes, and I even delayed a roast dinner so I could finish the novel.
The novel itself reads with all the charm of a classic such as The Secret Garden, but with a modern twist to both the characters and narrative that is both welcome and refreshing. Faith wants what every girl wants: the love and respect of her father. Unfortunately, she is guilty of the great sin of being born female and, as such, Reverend Sunderly dismisses her out of hand. She cannot possibly be as intelligent as she thinks herself, or has previously proven herself, because women are not capable of such things. Only men, like him.
Her ambitions are equally as reasonable with regard to becoming a natural scientist; she has the sharp mind and eagerness to learn that would make all this possible, if only she weren’t thwarted by her society’s strictures on her gender. Yet, despite all these restrictions, Faith battles to catch her father’s murderer – a mission which, if I’m honest, I didn’t think Reverend Sunderly remotely deserved. But a daughter’s love is steadfast.
Hardinge’s other characters were fully realised, with enough depth to make you change your mind about them when more of their personality was revealed. For instance, I began the book thinking Myrtle Sunderly, Faith’s mother, was a dislikeable airhead, and finished the book realising she simply had a different type of strength. She became my favourite character by the end of the novel, with the exception of Faith herself.
Although written as a character, the Lie Tree itself was more of a narrative device than anything else; despite being the eponymous mystery that was highly valued by the late Reverend Sunderly. It evoked an almost mythological air when it appeared on the page, however… or perhaps theological, depending on your point of view. More important, perhaps, were the passages that detailed the Lie Tree’s thrall over those who sought it. These were written with a mesmeric detail that drew you to the heat of the remote jungle.
These passages were not the only ones with such elegant power. Hardinge’s turn of phrase was, in general, beautiful. My favourite line of its ilk was ‘A rainstorm was rehearsing’ that described the light drops on the ground.
The Lie Tree is the first book that I’ve read from this author, but it certainly won’t be the last. Highly recommended.