The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge (2014, 2016)

The Lie Tree, by Frances HardingeAs embarrassing as it is to admit, I often find myself at odds with the selections for literary awards. I read them because a) everyone asks me if I’ve read it and b) expert readers have judged this a top contribution. But at least half the time, I’m left scratching my head, mystified as to why this book made the list. It’s happened again. Fourteen-year-old Faith is quietly seething under the Victorian constraints imposed by everyone from strangers to her adored father, the Rev. Erasmus Sunderly, who is also a natural scientist. Faith is a brilliant young scholar whose ambitions appear impossible to fulfill. Girls don’t know anything about the moon, her little brother informs her with sober sincerity. Girls are also bound by training corsets, sent out of the room when the adults are in discussion, and have nothing of value but their terribly fragile reputations. Faith is ready to break every rule, though, listening at doorknobs, sneaking out of her room, and showing off her sharp intellect. But when her father unexpectedly dies of apparent suicide, Faith is convinced he was killed, and determines to find out who is to blame. So far, so good, right? This is where it goes sideways for me. The time setting is about 10 years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, and public debate rages in the struggle to reconcile faith and reason. What is the truth? Faith discovers her father has turned to a strange fantastical creation in search of the answer – the Mendacity Tree, which he discovered during travels in China. The tree grows on lies, creating a bitter fruit that will reveal truth through hazy visions to those who consume it. Huh? My young proto-feminist heroine seeks truth by spreading lies and swallowing a hallucinogenic berry? Okay, I get that the tree is a metaphor, but as much as I like the idea of a protocol-busting female protagonist, Faith failed to generate any sympathy in me. Now, having said that, remember this won the 2015 Costa Award (formerly the Whitbread) as that year’s best children’s book in the U.K. So for another opinion, check out the very positive Kirkus review that drew me to the book in the first place. My thanks to publisher Amulet Books for the advance reading copy for the North American edition, provided through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
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