“Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies”
Frances Hardinge’s YA book, The Lie Tree, with its angry, highly intelligent, discounted central character, fourteen year old Faith Sunderly, is set in 1868, with a central theme involving scientific enquiry, fossil hunting, Darwin’s theories, their impact on faith, and the deepening realisation for the central character, that her life is unlikely to be what her character and abilities should fit her for, due to the unfair opportunities closed to her gender.
There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too
Hardinge won the Costa Children’s Book Category Prize with this – and, in fact, the Costa Judges also awarded it the Costa Book of The Year, the outright winner over the other category winners. And it is easy to see why
Firstly, she is a wonderfully rich literary writer, taking pleasure in rich language, gorgeous imagery – and giving huge pleasure to the reader. She has created a brilliant central character – awkward, fierce, resentful, loving, frustrated, and far more intelligent than most of the other inhabitants of her world, male and female, her contemporaries and the adults.
Faith is absolutely believable as an educated, intelligent, individual middle class girl on the edge of womanhood in Victorian England and she also stands for what it might have been like for many young girls of similar intelligence and independent thinking, rammed into the corseted embrace of narrow opportunities and confined expectations
For most of his six years, Howard had looked to Faith to be his oracle, his almanac, his source of all truth. He had believed everything she told him. This tide was changing though. Girls don’t know about sailing, he would say suddenly. Girls don’t know about the moon……Each time he said such a thing it was a shock, and Faith felt her domain of expertise breaking apart like an ice floe
So Hardinge’s book inhabits a real society at a certain time, but is also very much a fantasy historical novel, and a kind of detective story. It’s a mash-up which for the most part works very well indeed, and has much to absorb and fascinate the adult reader as well.
Faith, her winsome, eyelash batting, flirtatious mother, her far less intelligent younger brother, Howard, and her austere, secretive clergyman fossil hunting father leave their Kent home under some sort of secret cloud of impending disgrace. The Reverend Sunderly has achieved fame (and in fact, notoriety) around the discovery of a fossil which appears to verify the existence of the biblical Nephilim. Sunderly and family decamp to Vane, one of the Channel Islands (an invention which seems as if it must in fact exist!) which is a hub of archaeological interest.
Her emotions were so large and strange that they seemed to be something outside her, vast cloud patterns rolling and colliding above while she watched
There are darker matters afoot, and this is much more than a working out of Victorian reality – Hardinge injects dark Gothic fantasy into the mix, including a search, by several interested and fanatical parties, for a fabled and curious tree, The Mendacity Tree, which grows in complete darkness, has frightening hallucinogenic fruit and may even possibly be The Tree Of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There is even a beloved pet snake.
Along the way, murder, suicide, good old fashioned lust for riches, thwarted passions, revenge and a small society turning on those who flout its conventions flicker in and out of view. Hardinge also skilfully exploits that favourite crime-fiction trope, the country house murder – in this case, as the shenanigans which are going on happen against the background of a small island, the list of suspects, and the motives for the various mysteries which will need unravelling, are dizzyingly busy.
My only reservations about this glitteringly absorbing book came in the last 40 or 50 pages, where the pace of plot, ravelling up and being unravelled, became a bit too much for me, and the sense of galloping towards the tie up, the reveals, the explanations for the first time made me realise that I was reading a book for a younger market, perhaps one more desirous of fast, dynamic, dramatic action