‘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. A few stale lessons from tired governesses, dull walks, unthinking pastimes. But it was not enough. All knowledge – any knowledge – called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen.’
You must have heard of ‘The Lie Tree’. If you say you haven’t, I won’t believe you. This the first children’s book to win the Costa Award for book of the year since 2001 (when Philip Pullman won with ‘The Amber Spyglass’, which was the first children’s book to win EVER) so it really is a massive deal.
Set in 1868, ‘The Lie Tree’ tells the story of 14 year old Faith, who wants to be a natural scientist just like her father, the esteemed Reverend Erasmus Sunderly. He’s been one of the leading names in his field since he discovered a fossil that proved the existence of the Nephilim – a human shoulder blade with a wing affixed – and it’s for this reason that we join Faith and her family on a boat on their way to the island of Vane, where her father has been called in to assist at a new dig site.
However, Faith is a girl, and these are male dominated times. Faith needs to keep her interest in the sciences concealed, as it would be improper for a girl to want to know about those kinds of things. Her little brother, Howard, is encouraged to visit the dig site and view the caves – Faith is only allowed to go with him because he’s scared of going alone. It turns out he has good reason to: the mining basket that they travel down in has a weak chain, and it snaps and nearly hurtles the Sunderly siblings to their deaths.
Everyone thinks it must have been a terrible accident, and it’s lucky that the foreman, Ben Crock, had the foresight to attach guy ropes before the children went down. It convinces Myrtle, Faith’s mother, that she should definitely not be attending such a dangerous place, and Faith’s first visit to the dig site quickly becomes her last.
The Sunderly’s settle quite well into the community, becoming fast friends with Dr. Jacklers and Clay the curate (even though Paul, Clay’s son, and Faith definitely do not get on). Myrtle is a social climber, so she quickly establishes herself high up the hierarchy in the local ladies, exhibiting her power by being cruel to her staff members (particularly Jeanne the housemaid and Mrs Vellet the housekeeper) and using every possible moment to mention the fact that she was born in London, which is a much more desirable place than Vane, a tiny little island.
However, it doesn’t take long for the tides to turn. Faith discovers a newspaper article in her father’s possessions – there are claims that his Nephilim fossil was fabricated, the result of gluing two separate fossils together. Faith wonders if her family has fled to Vane to avoid the scandal, and when a newspaper arrives and spreads the gossip around the island she’s quickly proven right. Myrtle is shunned, and the local shopkeepers all refuse to serve them. To make matters worse, her father had gin traps installed around their property to capture trespassers: a young boy of Faith’s age gets trapped, causing damage to his leg that further aggravates the close community.
Then, one night, Faith’s father asks her to help him out with something. He has a plant that needs moving to a more secure area, and he overheard Faith mentioning some sea caves in the cliffs nearby – he wants her to help him transport the plant over there in a little boat. The sea is rough and it’s nearly midnight, but Faith agrees: she’ll do anything to help her father, because the opportunity arises so rarely. When the plant is in place and they return to the mainland, he says he has someone to meet and sneaks off – it’s the last time Faith sees him alive, because the next morning she finds his body halfway down the cliff.
Myrtle is distraught, certain that her husband has committed suicide due to the scandal, so she does everything she can do to cover up the circumstances in which he was found. However, Faith knows her father – and she knows that he had a gun in his pocket when he was going to his mystery meeting – so she’s certain that something else must have occurred, something much more menacing…
Normally, when it comes to murder mystery novels (particularly ones for young people!) the culprits are so obvious that I just want to cry. It’s predictable, and boring, and you’re wasting all of your time watching the detective run around like a headless chicken when you just want to shout “LOOK! IT WAS HIM, YOU MASSIVE IDIOT!”. But Frances Hardinge is a very clever writer, and the murderer is not obvious at all – I found it extremely surprising, but when I flicked back through the book all of the clues were there. This means ‘The Lie Tree’ is very satisfying as a story, with a plot that hooks you and a killer you just can’t wait to unmask.
However, that’s not the only reason that this is now one of my favourite books – a big claim but a true one!
This is a book that will appeal to everyone. Faith is only 14, so it can appeal to older and more mature readers of the middle grade genre, but I also think it will appeal wonderfully to adult readers. Because Faith fights against prejudice and sexism, it carries a brilliant feminist message, and she’s extremely mature for her age – she is a character that it’s impossible not to fall in love with.
It feels as though this book will become a classic. It hasn’t been out very long at all, but you can feel that it has a good potential for rereads – I think there’s a lot of clues that you’d only notice on the second or third read through – and because it’s set in the past it’s not going to age badly.
That’s another thing that I love about ‘The Lie Tree’. It’s obviously a historical novel – the 1800s are rather historic! – but it’s also a crime story and has aspects of magic in the form of the tree itself. It’s so hard to pigeonhole this book, because it can appeal to a very wide range of readers AND it ticks the boxes of multiple genres. It’s difficult to find a book that can do that, and it’s even rarer to find one that does it successfully and doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the story.
Faith also doesn’t have a love interest! I adore YA novels that don’t focus on love stories – particularly when the main character’s father has just been murdered – so that was a big relief. But despite the fact that there isn’t a love interest, friendship is a big focus in the novel – particularly the friendship between Faith and Paul Clay, who she has a rivalry with in the beginning but ends up needing to trust.
I just think this is a book everyone should read. I don’t think I can recommend it enough. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it – I nearly read it just after it came out, but something made me put it back, and I only chose to pick it up this time because I’m attempting to read the entire YA Book Prize shortlist. So the fact that I fell in love with it and read it in just two sittings (and it’s taken me a few days to write this review, because I didn’t know how to word how much I loved it!) was something I wasn’t expecting.
The story behind the tree – a plant which grows fruit only when you whisper a lie to it and the lie circulates around a wide group of people – is such a unique concept, it’s mind-blowing. The way Faith utilizes the tree is ingenious, but I won’t say too much about that because it’s much better to see it developing. I haven’t read any other novels by Frances Hardinge, but if they’re all as individual and beautifully crafted, I definitely need to hurry up and get around to one of her six other books.
If you like strong female characters, read this book. If you like surprising twists, read this book. If you like reading, read this book.
JUST READ THIS BOOK!