Faith doesn’t quite understand why her family has had to abruptly leave their home for a small island in the English Channel. Her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a natural scientist and has been invited to Vane to participate in a dig on the island, though the sudden urgency with which they leave London is suspicious at the very least. Faith, her parents, her uncle Miles, and her younger brother Howard (the last and only surviving son in a line of stillbirths and early deaths), arrive at Vane expecting to be welcomed. But because The Lie Tree is a Frances Hardinge novel, the sense of impending doom is heavy and present right from the very moody start.
Very soon it is clear that the family is unpopular on the island and the island isn’t very popular with them either—Faith’s mother Myrtle’s attitude makes it clear that she considers them to be high society city folk who are slumming it in Vane. The Reverend seems to be harbouring secrets and is paranoid about anyone on his property, setting dangerous traps for trespassers, one of which almost takes the leg off a young boy. The staff employed at their home resent them, the ladies of Vane society will not accept them, and the other scientists at the dig are not particularly pleased with the rumours that follow the Reverend to the island—rumours that probably caused his flight to Vane in the first place. Tensions seem to be escalating faster than Faith can attempt to decipher what is going on around her family.
One night, Faith’s father asks for her help in a very unlikely show of affection and need, and it is clear to Faith that he is indeed hiding something of great importance. She falls asleep later, thrilled that she has been able to be the dutiful, appreciated daughter she has always wanted to be, only to wake the next day to the news that her father has been found dead. Over the next few days, it is increasingly assumed that his death was a suicide and so the family are unable to bury him in hallowed ground. If the Reverend’s death is ruled a suicide, the family will be destitute. In the face of the imminent threat of his being buried with a stake in his heart at a crossroads outside town, Myrtle makes desperate attempts to appeal to the men in charge in the only ways she knows how—using her good looks and manipulating their egos. Faith is repulsed by her mother’s actions, unable to see that Myrtle is desperate and willing to do anything to keep her children from being turned out onto the streets. Myrtle’s brash confidence and openly manipulative ways are often a perfect foil to Faith’s deep-seated insecurity, and as the narrative develops, Hardinge cleverly plays mother and daughter against each other. They are, in fact, a lot more similar than they (or we) believe them to be at the start. As she finds something she needs to fight for, Faith learns to manipulate people around her just as her mother does. Whether she accepts it or not, Faith is—in a way—turning into her mother: a woman smart enough to understand that society is not going to let her be all that she wants to be, or have what she needs to survive and grow, and so she must fight for it within her limitations. "This is a battlefield, Faith!" says Myrtle. "Women find themselves on battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish" (p. 329).
By setting The Lie Tree in Victorian-era England, Hardinge is able to create fascinating female characters who may be trapped by societal limitations, but are still silently, fiercely, attempting to make a difference. The Lie Tree is at its core a wonderful story about a woman who wants so much more than she has ever been given the opportunity to reach for—though the focus of the novel is on Faith, this could easily describe a number of the other female characters in the book, all of whom strive in their own ways, good or bad. When away from men, these women, "without visibly changing, [. . .] unfolded, like flowers, or knives" (p. 64).
Surrounded by men who do not expect her—or any woman, at that—to be able to keep up with them or share their interests, Faith is endlessly frustrated by society, its expectations of her and of all women, and the limitations placed on her at every turn. But whether it’s being trained physically to wear a corset or learning to speak only when spoken to, Faith is unable to behave the way women her age are meant to—she wants, simply, more.
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 in unseen (p. 8).
It is this drive that leads Faith to investigate her father’s death. She believes he has been murdered, most possibly because of a very special tree that he has possession of. The tree, a strange, monster plant that defies all logic by growing only in the dark and needing nothing but lies to feed it, is a mystery to both Faith and her father, as she discovers from reading his papers and diaries. Hidden in a cave off the coast, the tree bears the fruit of knowledge but only when it has been told a lie that is then believed by other people. The bigger the lie, the more its believers, the bigger the fruit and presumably, the greater the knowledge. And so Faith tells the lies she needs to in order to gain more knowledge about her father’s death. Things spiral out of control, "rules tinkled silently as they broke," and Faith’s lies become truths to the people on the island (p. 89).
As always, Hardinge’s language is incredibly impressive. As eerie and atmospheric as her books are, they are never just that; because of the subject matter but also very much because of her great skill and nuance with language when writing about emotions, particularly those of teenagers.
Faith’s desires and frustrations are a thick, living thing, growing the way the Lie Tree does, with heavy tentacles. When she is full of questions, she is "coiling and writhing like the snake in the crate" (p. 7). When her mind is full of ideas, she tries "to tame the unruly rookery of her thoughts" (p. 156). Overwhelming darkness closes "like a fist" around her (p. 349). When she discovers the tree, the great monster of this book, "imaginary ants led a parade up her spine" (p. 181). The tree itself is an intriguing creation; surviving in the dark and with no sunlight or water to feed it, it still grows magnificently as Faith does, as her lies do. As the narrative she creates around her father’s death grows more and more insidiously, so does the Tree, spreading thickly, mysteriously in its dark cave.
The Lie Tree is more than a story about a young woman’s coming of age. Hardinge gives us multiple female characters who do not fall silently into the roles expected of them—a natural scientist who has had to hide for decades behind a bumbling husband, a lesbian couple who must keep their relationship secret, Myrtle herself, who probably much more aware than her husband is of how to manage the unsaid rules of Victorian society, and of course Faith, the young girl who refuses to sit back meekly and not question her world.
Ultimately, Faith learns that she is not uniquely curious; she is not the only one who wants and deserves better and more than she is allowed to want. "Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies" (p. 404).
Mahvesh Murad is a book critic & recovering radio show host living in Karachi, Pakistan. She currently hosts the podcast Midnight in Karachi on Tor.com and writes for multiple publications. You can find her on Twitter @mahveshm or at www.mahveshmurad.com.