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The Lie Tree coverOh, The Lie Tree. For so long — since January, in fact, when I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC — I’ve been holding this up as an exemplar of great writing. Along with The Passion of Dolssa this has consistently held top billing in my head. It’s brilliant and unconventional; the writing is excellent; the themes unexpected: religion and science and feminism, oh my, with a lovely side of what it means to grow up.

And look, I still stand by this one as an excellent book. But after re-reading, I find I also have some questions. Let’s dig in!

The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge
Amulet, May 2016
Reviewed from ARC

6 stars! SIX. So clearly, this is a book to reckon with. Reviewers have praised everything about this — the language, the plot, the scope, the atmosphere, the characters, and the genre. More than that, this won the Costa prize in the UK — apparently the first children’s book to do so since The Amber Spyglass. Which is befitting, because like Pullman’s conclusion, this is a book deeply concerned with faith and with the tension between science and religion.

Let’s talk about faith. And Faith. Where this book falters — no book, after all, is perfect — is probably in a certain lack of subtlety. Faith’s name; the detailed descriptions of things that tie directly to the meta-textual conversation about women’s roles (corsets, crinolines), in stark contrast to little or no description of other, equally historical, elements (what exactly is a dog-cart, and why is Myrtle disdainful of it?) Interestingly, in a book concerned so deeply with faith and dogma, with the shift from world-views steeped in religion to views steeped in science — this is set only 10 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species — there is a lack of faith on the part of the author for the readership.

But then there’s Faith, a passionate, often unkind character who leaps off the page, so strongly written that it’s tempting to forgive the issues of overt messaging. And there’s the treatment of faith: Faith is losing it, rapidly; she’s a natural scientist by inclination and (self-administered) education, but she’s also the daughter of a reverend. The very reverend who discovered possible fossil evidence that indicates the veracity of the bible. She believes unquestioningly in her father, who looms menacingly over his family, but the events that kick off the novel call into question whether the honest, upstanding reverend is perhaps just a charlatan. She believes in science, and yet she must grapple with the titular tree, which seems to defy science. She believes that women can’t do anything, because even though she knows her own worth, the world has conspired against her faith in herself — and then she finds that they may not be permitted by society to wield power, but that doesn’t make women powerless.

As a character, Faith is a tour de force, both sympathetic and unappealing. She’s sneaky and sly, fierce and often unkind but ultimately a good person — witness her confession to save the (even less pleasant) Jeanne, or her nearly endless patience with Howard, who is not the easiest of siblings. Her growing empathy for others, her recognition that there is, in the end, a moral compass and a choice: all are commendable and make her a protagonist of note, regardless of likability. Her interactions with Paul are perhaps the strongest moments of character study; there’s a kind of madness that takes her over when faced with a peer who — because of the circumstances of their first meeting — sees her for what and who she really is. That’s the Faith a we as readers both admire and maybe fear a little. That’s understandable: Faith fears herself, too.

And the language. Like the theme of faith, which is perhaps too on the nose at times but also adds up to a fairly sublime thematic study, the language is at times too much — adjective after adjective, complex but overwrought metaphors — but often is simply stunning.

Finally, the discourse on the nature of lies seems almost prescient as the news erupts with stories of fake news and the way it propagates. As Faith notes, a lie will grow; it takes only a little work to plant it and then others willingly feed it: witness Pizzagate, or any number of other stories, from the right and the left. Faith is a reluctant, scientific liar; unlike her father or Agatha Lambent, she doesn’t want the tree for power but for truth, and the purity of that desire — which is clearly at odds with the nature of the tree — is what allows her to step out of it’s spell. But until that moment, as she seeds lies and watches them spread, Faith becomes a commentator on the way truth is too often malleable and the way people willingly embrace false stories for deeply personal reasons, and above all for “truthiness”. Of course the harsh, stern reverend would haunt Jeanne after his death, because she’s been causing trouble and has anger in her heart; her guilt makes the haunting feel real and therefore makes the lie grow. Truth is not the same as factual, after all.

This is fantasy, and a gothic, and a novel of manners, and historical fiction, and a feminist polemic. It’s a mash of so many things, all woven together into something that is clearly striking chords with critics. Hardinge has a control of her material few authors can manage, and in other hands this would probably be nothing but a spectacular mess, rather than mostly spectacular.

And yet.

This is a book that struck me as diminished on a second read, much like Reverend Sunderly after his lies become known. The flaws I mentioned above had escaped my notice until that second read; additionally, the villainess seemed trite on round 2 when initially I was struck only by the way a female pulling the strings provided Faith with yet another problematic image of female power, both enticing and disturbing. The Lie Tree itself, the fantasy element in an otherwise deeply realistic text, seems like an outlier for exactly that reason, and the scientific discourse surrounding it, the grasping at straws to explain the inexplicable, belies the narrative about science as the great equalizer.

(Also, can we talk about the tree and Eden and the fruit of knowledge and the downfall of womankind? And the rejection of the tree as the saving of Faith? And the choice to make it an apple on the cover, potentially driving home the perplexing, fascinating read of the tree as that tree?)

I think this is a marvel, but possibly one of diminishing returns. Or potentially a third read will redeem it? We’ll have to see next month!




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