The Mendacity Tree is the stuff of legends – whisper a lie to it, spread the lie around, and the tree will bear a fruit uncovering a secret.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is an enjoyable read full of mystery, heartache, and chills. It tells a story from the perspective of Faith, a 14-year-old girl full of wonder and curiosity about the world. Her father is a reverend and a renowned natural scientist, and all she wants is to help him with his work and learn.
The book opens with Faith and her family moving to Vane Island. After secretly digging through her father’s papers, Faith learns that the family is escaping a scandal back in their hometown of Kent, where stories are circulating that her father is a fraud. Though the family is initially well-received by the townspeople, attitudes quickly change when news of the Reverend’s scandal reaches the island. Tensions are high, but no one will tell Faith why.
One night, the Reverend takes Faith out on a mission at night to find caves she had seen earlier. When they return to the house, he swears her to secrecy, tells her that he must go out again, and asks her to lie to everyone about his whereabouts. He never returns.
When the Reverend’s body is found, the townspeople believe that he committed suicide, but Faith is convinced her father was murdered. Looking through his journal, she learns of the Lie Tree, and she embarks on a new mission to unravel the secrets behind her father’s death.
Set in the Victorian era, the novel is thoroughly feminist. Throughout the book, men tell Faith that it is scientific fact that women are less intelligent because their brains are smaller. They tell her that women are unskilled and incapable and that the only thing a woman can be is “good.” Faith is extremely frustrated because she is clearly intelligent and wants the same opportunities that men are afforded, but the men around her refuse to provide her with anything other than women’s duties. As the novel progresses, it introduces strong women who have learned to wield power in a patriarchal society while Faith gains confidence in her intellect.
I also appreciated the way the novel handled the dichotomy between religion and science. It was a great imagining of the upheaval that was caused by the publication of The Origin of Species. While some scientists staunchly believe in the Bible as a historical record, others are more swayed by the book’s theories and the recent discoveries of fossils. The Reverend wants to know the truth about the origin of the world and humans, but he also feels great despair from the thought that everything he believes might be wrong and that humans might be much more insignificant than they seem. It’s touching and confusing at the same time.
On the other hand, some of the book’s drawbacks include its slow pacing at the beginning. Additionally, though the Reverend is Faith’s father, I didn’t completely understand her idolatry of him – going so far as to think of him like God sometimes – when he, like any other man, berated her for not staying in her place. Faith also displays an ignorance of her position as a woman of relative privilege. It can be hard to relate to the characters, so some readers might find the novel irrelevant.
Overall, I would recommend this book to readers curious about life and attitudes in the Victorian era and those looking for a dose of mysticism. It’s a true mystery that kept me curious until the end.
Hardinge, Frances. The Lie Tree. Amulet Books, 2016.
By Hattie Xu