Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (2016)
I think that Frances Hardinge is destined to become one of my new favorite authors. I loved The Lie Tree (as well as her previous novel, Cuckoo Song) for the interesting things she does with ideas and relationships and history and myth. Hardinge’s prose is vivid and distinctive without being overly stylized, and her concepts spring out of real imaginative power rather than gimmicky formulas. Her young-adult characters are striving toward selfhood in a complex, nuanced way that can be appreciated by readers on both sides of the child/adult divide. With so many ingredients that are very much to my taste, the result was a delicious treat for me.
In The Lie Tree, we are introduced to Faith Sunderly, a bright, talented girl on the threshold of Victorian womanhood. Neither her father, an renowned paleontologist, nor her social-butterfly mother have the least idea of what is going on inside her head, or that she might want to break out of the bounds of what society has decreed for her. But when the family suddenly moves to a remote island for a research project, Faith finds that the surface veneer of her family’s safe, conventional life is beginning to crack. What was the true motivation for this abrupt dislocation? Why have none of their servants been brought along? What is her father hiding in the summerhouse? And what is the inner and outer menace that threatens him? As she begins to investigate, danger comes close to her as well, and cannot be escaped without demanding a dark sacrifice.
The theme of lying and deception is intricately woven into the plot and embodied in the image of the Lie Tree. This is a fantastical creation that yet is plausible within the world of the story, which takes place during a time when science was opening up undreamed-of wonders and shaking the foundations of human knowledge. Theories and notions about the relationship between the physical and spiritual world proliferated wildly, and the notion of a plant that feeds on human mendacity would fit right in. Hardinge’s slow build-up of the insidious Tree made for a narrative that was both thrilling and psychologically astute.
Though I enjoyed much of the book immensely, I admit to feeling somewhat disappointed in the ending, which left me wishing for more development of certain characters. Friends turned into villains, villains into friends, but then the rising action culminated in a frantic chase that cut off any opportunity to explore these surprising developments further. I wouldn’t have minded another chapter or two in that direction.
That’s not going to stop me from reading Hardinge’s next book, though, and seeking out as much of her earlier work as I can. For thoughtful, emotionally satisfying, imaginative entertainment, she’s one author that I will treasure.