There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too.
Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree might just be the best new book I’ve read this year…And I’ve read a lot of books, many of them Very Good Books. But Hardinge’s novel had me from the moment I read about its premise, and a few days after finishing, it still hasn’t let me go.
At the start of Hardinge’s novel, we find ourselves following fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly and her family as they leave their home and travel to the small island of Vane, where her father and her Uncle Miles are set to join an excavation dig. The year is 1864. We–and Faith–quickly begin to discover that All is Not Well–there may be one or many ulterior motives to the family’s sudden departure from home and arrival on vane, including rumors that some of her father’s greatest finds may have been forgeries. Faith has an insatiable hunger for knowledge–knowledge that is forbidden to her because of her youth and her sex. It is this desire that leads her to her father’s journals and then to the Mendacity Tree, a strange plant that grows when it is fed lies, bearing fruits that uncover truths.
If it sounds wondrous and bizarre, that’s because it is. The premise alone excited me…And then I started reading. Faith Sunderly is maybe one of my favorite girl characters in young adult fiction, and she’s got some rather stiff competition. Faith is everything a girl is not supposed to be in 1864…Clever, curious, passionate, headstrong, and impatient. Time and again, what she wants comes into conflict with what is expected of her, and watching her learn to navigate those waters is fascinating.
Hardinge is really adept at depicting Faith’s interiority despite the 3rd person narration, and the 3rd person narration allows the narrator to make a lot of observations about femininity. Faith’s mother is a flirt and a beauty, using her looks and class to get what she wants. She stands in stark contrast not just to Faith’s father, whose reason and intellect are what drive him, but also to many of the other women in the novel. Watching Faith learn to navigate those separations is the real joy of the novel.
The book does take a while to get going properly, but in its defense, the set-up is rather complex. There are quite a few characters, many of them eventually becoming Pertinent to the Plot, and because the beginning of the novel is fleshed out in this way, the characters are mostly round rather than flat, and the increasingly complex truths that are revealed bear more significance than they might otherwise.
I’m honestly afraid to say too much more for fear of giving away things that are best discovered in the novel itself, but expect me to pop up with more to say about Faith eventually. I’ll just leave you with one of my favorite moments from the book, a realization that Faith has about her mother and about womanhood:
She is just a perfectly sensible snake, protecting her eggs and making her way in the world as best she can.