Monday, May 2, 2016

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Reverend Erasmus Sunderly and his family, wife Myrtle, daughter Faith,14, six-year-old son Howard, and their Uncle Miles have just moved from Kent, England to the small, remote island of Vane.  The move is supposedly because of an archaeological dig going on on Vane, but in truth, the Reverend, a respected amateur scientist, is leaving because news is about to break that he falsified some of his own fossil finds.  It is hoped that news of the scandal won't follow the family to Vane.

During the trip and upon arrival, Sunderly is particularly protective of a box of his "miscellaneous cuttings," more concerned with these plants than his own family.  Faith, who is a very clever, intelligent girl, and would like to follow in her beloved father's footsteps and become a scientist, too, can't help but wonder what it is about these specimens that make them so special.

Not surprisingly, it doesn't take long for the word of Sunderly's scandal to follow the family to Vane. Soon, no one will speak to them, help them in the village stores or even acknowledge them at church. The Sunderly's have become pariahs on Vane and are effectively shunned.

Faith's curiosity about her father's "miscellaneous cuttings" begins to be satisfied one night when her father takes her out in a rowboat to cave, along with a clothe-covered plant.  Leaving her in the boat, Sunderly takes the plant and disappears into the cave, only to return plantless, and rows them back to shore.

The next morning Faith's father is found dead.  It looks for all the world like a suicide but Myrtle Sunderly manages to flirt enough with him to convince Dr. Jacklers to rule her husband's death an accident.  Faith absolutely doesn't believe her father would take his own life, nor does she believe it was an accident.  Faith is convinced her father was murdered and she is determined to prove it.  To do that, Faith must uncover her father's secrets, and that would include his papers on the mysterious plant he had taken to the cave the night he was murdered, a tree that, she discovers, flourishes in darkness, feeds on lies and reveals truths to those who ate its fruit: "If the Tree could deliver secrets, then perhaps it would unravel for her the mystery of her father's death."

The Lie Tree has been called "a superb Victorian murder melodrama" and it is.  And here's the funny thing - I thought it hadn't grabbed me from the start the way Cuckoo Song did, but imagine my surprise when I realized I has become totally ensnared by The Lie Tree and could hardly bare to put it down when I had to.

It is not a book for everyone, though, but if it is a book for you, you will be treated to a long, winding journey through Victorian thinking.  The action begins around 1868, nine years after publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, a book that talked about evolution and the survival of the fittest and set the religious world on its ear, including Rev. Sunderly and his fellow amateur paleontologists on Vane.

Victorian society also dictated that girls like Faith not entertain ideas about becoming anything other than a good wife who can run her household efficiently.  As her father tells Faith: "A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can.  If she is not good, she is nothing."  Faith may love her father very much, but she also have some strong feminist leanings about what a girl can do.

Set on an isolated island, Hardinge is able to provide us with a cast of characters large enough to give the reader a nice cross-section of Victorian life, small enough that she can focus on everyone's unique personality and give them all depth.  And some of her characters will surely surprise you.

But it is Hardinge's writing that really makes her novels so outstanding.  She slowly, slowly unravels her stories using the most eloquently lyrical language.  Among other things, The Lie Tree is a coning of age story, described as only Hardinge: "For the last year, [Faith] had felt like a seesaw, clumsily rocking between childhood and adulthood."  And I remember that feeling so well.

The Lie Tree is perfect for anyone wanting a "Victorian gothic murder mystery, but with extra palaeontology, post mortem photography, feminism and blasting powder" according to the author, Francis Hardinge, but I would also add that it is a thriller about Victorian mores and behaviors. There's even a delicious twist at the end.  And that idea about survival of the fittest - yup, it's there, too.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

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