Saturday, 29 April 2017

Books Read in April 2017

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This won the Costa Children's Book Award in 2015, plus the overall Costa Book of the Year. Only one other book has done that, Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. I don't really understand why The Lie Tree was entered into a children's book category. The main character is a fourteen-year-old girl, but that's about it for any links to children. It's a clever, mature, well-written, thought-provoking story, which isn't easily pigeon-holed into any one genre. It's an historical novel, but also part-fantasy and part-science fiction. It doesn't have any explicitly adult content, so I suppose that's why it's a children's book, though it's just as 'grown-up' as most adult fiction.

Faith Sunderby is the main character. She leaves mainland Britain with her pretty, manipulative mother, her austere, distant father, her kind uncle, and her little brother, Howard. They flee to a remote island to escape a scandal involving her father, the Reverend Sunderby, a renowned natural scientist and discoverer of sensational fossils. Faith has no idea what they are running away from. As far as she knows, her father is a paragon of virtue and a giant in his field.

This is one of the many things Faith comes to learn isn't strictly accurate as the story unfolds. She discovers the Lie Tree, a seemingly magical plant that feeds on human lies and produces fruit that reveal the truth when eaten. Without wanting to spoil anything, she finds out that almost everything she thought was true turns out to be false. She gains knowledge of the world, and sees how lies corrupt everything they touch.

The Lie Tree highlights the fact that there are lies in every part of life - family secrets, professional dishonesty, the personas people adopt to hide their real personalities. Faith has to hide her own interest in science because ladies are not supposed to do science, and so she is forced to pretend otherwise.  Virtually everyone is forced into a rigid, narrow box that society has made for them, contrary to their true selves. This even extends down to Faith's brother, Howard. He's three or four, and he's left-handed. This is irregular, according to Victorian society and Howard's parents, so they make him wear The Jacket when he's writing. Its left sleeve is sewn to the jacket's side, so he can't use his left arm.

Denying the truth that women are as capable as men is another lie perpetuated by society in the novel. The lie that God created the world and all its animals and plants is challenged by Darwinian evolution. The scientific theory of animal magnetism is shown to be discredited, while the equally untrue phrenology is enthusiastically practiced by one of the characters. Women's skulls and brains are smaller, proving their intellectual inferiority, and the skulls of criminals are different to those of non-criminals. A load of rubbish, but people really believed it in the 19th century, so this is another interesting wrinkle - intentional versus unintentional lies, or malicious versus benign. Black and white with plenty of grey area here.

But enough hamfisted analysis. It's a good book. Convincing, interesting, a page-turner, insightful. The Lie Tree itself is creepy, the visions it creates are weird, and how it actually reveals the truth is open to doubt. Faith is a great character, a brave, smart girl who stops at nothing to discover the secrets that fill her life. There are so many lies and attempts at distorting the truth, that when Faith says something heartfelt and sincere, it's quite moving.

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