Posted in Books, Children's, Feminism, Reviews

The Lie Tree | Frances Hardinge (not like other ladies)

It took me forever to get into this book. I got into a massive reading slump and kept staring at the book and thinking ‘Why must I read you?’ and that isn’t the best precedent to set before getting to a hundred pages. However, once I finally got into The Lie Tree, none of that mattered because, wow, this book has a lot to say.

When Faith’s father is found dead under mysterious circumstances, she is determined to untangle the truth from the lies. Searching through his belongings for clues she discovers a strange tree. A tree that feeds off whispered lies and bears fruit that reveals hidden secrets.

But as Faith’s untruths spiral out of control, she discovers that where lies seduce, truths shatter…

I bought this book purely because Patrick Ness said he liked it on the cover (I’m terrible) and I thought it would be your run of the mill well-written children’s fantasy. It was not. The Lie Tree is actually a kind of magical realism novel set in the mid-Victorian era under the shadow of Darwin’s revolutionary On the Origin of Species. It’s a book with three main, and complex, themes: the clash of old theological views and new scientific revelations; the possible reasons and the consequences of lying; and the ideas behind Victorian gender roles.

It’s the last theme that sticks with you. Because The Lie Tree is led by Faith Sunderly and Faith wants to be a natural scientist. The only problem is that she’s arrived on the scene about a hundred years early and she has to deal with the men around her spurting out things like:

‘The larger the skull, the larger the brain, and the greater the intelligence,’ the doctor continued, warming to his theme. ‘You need only look at the difference between the skull sizes of men and women. The male skull is larger, showing it to be the throne of intellect.’ The doctor seemed to become aware that he was not being entirely tactful. ‘The female mind is a different thing all together,’ he added quickly, ‘and quite delightful in its own right! But too much intellect would spoil and flatten it, like a rock in a soufflé.’

Side note: here he’s talking about craniometry, the measurement of the main part of the skull. It was all part of the idea that the external shape and size of the skull could suggest traits and intelligence. It was also used to say that certain groups of people were less intelligent than others (three guesses which). Needless to say, modern neuroscience has shown there’s more nuance than what the Victorians liked to believe. Probably when a woman showed up and pointed out that a soufflé is a very unappreciated pudding.

Every child begins their life in debt to the parents that house, clothe and feed them. A son may some day pay back that debt by cutting a figure in the world and raising the family’s fortunes. As a daughter, you never will. You will never serve with honour in the army, or distinguish yourself in the sciences, or make a name for yourself in the Church or Parliament, or make a decent living in the professions.

Does all of this have an impact on Faith? Obviously. She’s fourteen but she’s already resigned herself to a life that won’t include her in the natural sciences, or one that, at the most, won’t appreciate her mind, discoveries or work.

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.

The beginning of the book is very male-character dominated. They’re all giving their very welcome opinions about Faith’s interest in science and her place in the adult world she’s beginning to enter. Whenever she reveals that she knows more than they expect (because she has, you know, read books), they not only act surprised but disappointed that they cannot enlighten Faith with their superior intellect.

There’s a scene where Dr Jacklers (the same one from earlier) measures Faith’s head and he’s baffled by the results. He tries again, physically (but unintentionally) hurting Faith as he tries to get the result he wants from his measuring instrument. I was thinking: go Faith and her big head.

Faith’s six-year-old brother, Howard, shows the other side of this. He’s being prepared to go off to boarding school from which he’s set to follow the steps of his father. But, as Faith well knows, he’s not too keen on the idea and he’s not at the level she was when she was his age. He’s six though so we can’t be too hard on him and, besides, when he practices his writing he wears a jacket with one of the sleeves sewn shut  – all to prevent him using his left hand. All he wants to do is run around with his toy gun.

By the end of the book, these forced ideas are starting to shift in Faith’s soufflé mind. Suddenly all the female characters, who have been very much on the side lines so far, take over the plot and Faith realises there are other ways to go about this world. She might not have the opportunity to be acknowledged as a natural scientist, but maybe she can pave the way for other girls to find the path. This is also where we find one of my new favourite quotations:

Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies.

I could go on. I haven’t even touched on the Lie Tree, the book’s namesake. This is one of those books that has so much inside that it could be appreciated by pretty much anyone – not just its intended young audience. It’s actually one of the suggestions for my mum’s book club right now.

But there’s one other thing that can’t be avoided here: as previously mentioned, it took forever for me to get over the reading slump this book induced. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  1. The writing has quite a lot to it. Not that there’s anything wrong with this at all, but it doesn’t help when you’re trying to get excited about a book again (there are times when you need something easy).
  2. The pacing can get slow. There are parts where you think ‘Is anything happening here?’ Hint: something is, but you’re not supposed to know that yet.
  3. Remember all that intriguing stuff in the book’s description? Yeah, you’re going to have to get through half the book before any of that happens. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I really don’t like it when the publishers decide to tell you half of the plot on the back cover before you’ve even read the thing. I kept getting distracted wondering when the bloody tree was going to turn up.

This might just be a case of reading the book at an unlucky time. None of this necessarily eludes at bad writing, but it’s stopping me from flinging around five-star ratings. Even so, I’m definitely considering a reread sometime so I can pick up on all the clever details I missed the first time (because I’m sure there are many).

Overall: 4/5 (let’s all collectively resent reading slumps)

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