Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree was first published in May 2015, and last week it won the Costa Book of the Year award for 2016. I normally pay very little attention to book prizes, except to glance at the shortlist and note that yet again nothing I want to read ever seems to win a prize. I ought to be paying more attention, because I loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Nicola Griffith’s Hild, both scoopers-up of many book prizes, so perhaps book prize judges are beginning to share my tastes. The Lie Tree attracted my attention (I had never even heard of it, or of Frances Hardinge) because in the Costa shortlists this YA Gothic / horror / historical novel beat Proper Serious Writers. Its genre scream ‘niche!’ to the booksellers who will park it in the ‘Teen Fiction’ section, well away from ‘New Fiction’, or ‘Books We Like’. I don’t read horror or YA when they’re marketed as such, so thank goodness the prize jury dragged this fine novel out of niche oblivion.
It is 1865. Faith Sunderly is 14, the pale and snubbed elder daughter of the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned naturalist and minister of religion. She has five dead brothers and one live one, the six year old Howard who is NOT left-handed because if he wears his jacket with the sewn-down arm he will learn to write and eat properly with his right hand. Their mother, Myrtle, is a practiced coquette who uses her arts delicately to find ways for the family to survive social and economic hazards, but her grim husband can crush her with a glance. They have just arrived at Vane, a lesser-known Channel Island, where they will stay until the news reports damning the Reverend as a fossil faker disappear from people’s memory. The Reverend is much more concerned with the safety of his boxes and natural history specimens than his family, and Faith has to wait in the rain for the carriage’s second trip to their rented house because the trunk of ‘Miscellaneous Cuttings’ is more important than she is.
Faith is desperate for love and miserably aware that her father ignores her and her mother despairs of her. Nothing she does is any good, except look after her brother. Faith is also desperate for learning and knowledge, and the most powerful scenes in this novel are the father‘s rejections of the clever, anxious daughter because she is a girl. Here we see the emergence of bizarre behaviour. He pushes her away with vicious words, insisting that she owes him her life and obedience, and then commands her to accompany him on a secret midnight trip across the bay, navigating the rowing boat by lamplight, so he can transport a mysterious bundled plant into a cave. When the Reverend dies mysteriously, Faith reads his papers, discovers that this plant is the Mendacity Tree that feeds on lies, and will grow a fruit of knowledge. Faith uses the Tree to spread lies around the islanders to force her father’s murderer into the open, but telling lies is a soul-destroying habit.
It’s damn good. The Lie Tree is beautifully written without a false note or slipped tone. The plot is complex, unfolding like a series of darker and stranger rooms, one opening out from the next, until the last is the door to bright light and release. The characters are believable, distinguishable, memorable, and handled with care. The Lie Tree is perfectly balanced in every respect. If I had one quibble it would be the extra-large line spacing on the pages in the UK edition: bulking up the pages to make the book seem longer, or deliberately encouraging the YA reader?
The most impressive aspect of this novel is the way the reader’s thinking and assumptions about women are handled. Faith is oppressed by her father, her mother is a manipulator of men, Jeanne the housemaid is sacked by the Reverend for entering a room at the wrong time, Mrs Lambent is a haughty helpmeet to her pompous husband who intends to be the next Member of Parliament, and Miss Hunter is a gruff spinster joke. Howard demands the help of his mother, his sister, the housekeeper and the maids in place of his missing governess, left behind on the mainland. As is perfectly conventional, Victorian women scurry to serve the Victorian men, and they are always subjugated to the men.
The men, on the other hand, are dominating presences: the cold monumental power of the Reverend is terrifying, even in a drug-induced coma. Dr Jackler the amateur craniometrist is irritated by the size of Faith’s skull, which is longer than a woman’s skull should be. Mr Clay the curate insists on telling her scientific facts that she learned years ago. Mr Lambent is a petulant figure, dominating the excavation under the cliffs in his ludicrous Eastern clothing, but he will be shaped by his wife.
The narrative presents the women in the traditional, subordinate roles, yet tells us insistently through Faith’s actions and emotions that women are stronger, cleverer, more practical, braver and better managers than any of the men in the novel. We are urged to step back and reflect on what we see, because the women in this novel are doing strange, new, important things, unnoticed by the men, and (because she is only 14, and completely unhappy) are only slowly understood by Faith. Reading this novel lifts veils on how we read, what we expect to see, and what we miss. It’s beautifully, precisely handled, a joy to read.