The Lie Tree
Author: Frances Hardinge
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery, Historical Fiction
Length: 410 pg.
Published: Amulet Books, April 2016
The Biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil offered a fruit that promised Eve insight into the secrets of God, and she took and ate. What answers did she crave that warranted selling her soul? We will never know, but her lustful line has trickled down to all of the human race. The power to unveil mysteries, to be limitless in knowledge, both are innately seductive, and easily justifiable. What difficulties might be solved if one could only see a little further into the haze? The Lie Tree, written by prestigious British author Frances Hardinge, and named Costa Book of the Year (a UK award across five categories, which she won over Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins), offers just such an alluring proposal.
A tree waits in darkness. Feed it lies, propagate them, and then eat the fruit that results—that’s all it takes to gain the answer to any mystery. What would be worth such an end? A reputation, a man’s life, the family and career that are the product of a life-time? These are what hang in the balance for Victorian natural scientist/minister Sunderly. When this gamble leaves Sunderly dead, having taken everything he had to give, his daughter, Faith, is infected by the same craving for knowledge—compounded by her desire to be approved by a father who had always belittled her. Willing, in turn, to risk everything she possesses, Faith seeks to use the tree to unravel the mystery of her father’s death. Perhaps her worthy cause will tilt the balance on her Faustian wager. What she doesn’t bargain for is the decay of her own soul.
Faith’s relationship with this lie tree starts innocently enough as a desperate need for answers. Soon, however, she starts to feel first “hungry curiosity” and then a growing affection for this plant she has knit herself into. After all, she has cultivated and then eaten its produce. She even fantasizes that the tree has a partiality towards her. The more she learns the art of lying, the more she begins to enjoy her inventions and the “tremors” they produce. Her steps in this dark dance have transformed her from an innocent girl into something resembling what “snakes looked [like] when they moved.” She recognizes this transformation in herself. Her self-image is tarred, causing her to moan, “I am not good. I am wicked and deceitful and full of rage. I cannot be saved.” She admits this plant she has grown to love brings out the worst in her. And, despite everything, the help she has gotten for her efforts is doubtful. The closer Faith thinks she is to solving the mystery of her father’s death, the more entangled she becomes, until her own life and that of her family is in danger.
Now that Faith has succumbed to this dark allegiance, is there any chance for redemption? Faith does recover, but the journey out is less clear than the journey in. Certainly, several of her decisions play a key role in loosening darkness’ grip on her. She renounces the tree and her lies, even when it means forgiving a girl who has scorned her and her family. Faith also reconciles with her mother, showing the first-fruits of familial unity and trust. And, most touching, she is helped by a stranger. Paul, the clergyman’s son, does not like her, and they have not known each other long, but when Faith enlists his help in solving her mystery, he comes to her aid. Paul is the only rope keeping Faith anchored outside of her poisonous duet with the tree. In his unwillingness to leave Faith to her own devices (even though it means participating in her questionable choices) he communicates that he believes in her. He believes she is not the wicked snake she has come to see herself as. One step at a time, Faith re-winds her path, not to be the girl she was before, but to be richer for her journey.
Paul is the closest thing to a Christological view of redemption in The Lie Tree, and this is provocative since he goes along with her immorality (not unlike the Biblical Adam). Despite her allusions to the Genesis account, Hardinge’s story is more an exploration of faith than a Christian allegory. Yet, by any measure, the x-ray insight she shows into the psychology of lying, and the inner-workings of darkness, is spot on. The steps toward light that she presents are worth pondering. Hardinge depicts truth with an authenticity that sticks in the mind and challenges our justifications. I couldn’t help thinking of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Her 2015 book Cuckoo Song appears to be an equally piercing examination of grief, and I can’t wait to read more from this author.
Favorite line: “The next day dawned callously clear and heartlessly sunny.”