“The past was all around her. She could smell it. It did not feel dead. It felt alive, and as curious about her as she was about it.”

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (Amulet Books, 2016) won the Costa Book Award in 2015. I’ve been impatiently seeking it out since then but my library took their time acquiring it. At last they did and I could devour this fantastical tale.

“The rules tinkled silently as they broke.”

Faith worships her father and wants to join him in his scientific endeavours, sadly he cares more about his younger son. Faith makes do with snooping among his papers and listening at doors to find out the mystery as to why they’ve vacated their comfortable life in Kent to the windswept island of Vane. Nominally, Reverend Sunderly is taking part in a scientific dig for fossils, but something isn’t quite right. Actually, a whole lot of things aren’t right – who knew angels could fossilize.

“Silence itself could be used as deftly and cruelly as a knife.”

I love this story. The lies and the science and Faith’s questioning of every impediment placed in her way by her Victorian strictures.

“The air tasted of salt and guilt, and she felt alive.”

Frances Hardinge’s writing is sublime and swept me up in the ominous pall enshrouding the island and the mystery of why every local seems to hate the Sunderly family on sight.

“The low road and the sea always flirted with each other, and today they were particularly passionate.”

And there are snakes! Not only Faith’s pet who has exceptional skills at guarding secrets, but clever metaphors around snakes and family life.

“Just for a moment she wished that she could shed herself like a snake’s skin, and slide away to be somebody else.”

We don’t meet the lie tree itself, until quite a way into the story. In hindsight, its creeping vines guide everything that happens. The lies tangling about this strange nocturnal plant, leave a trail of death and destruction that Faith may never outwit, just as her father couldn’t.

Like Faith and her father, I wondered where the lie tree got its energy with its aversion to light. Even carnivorous plants which feed on insects, have chlorophyll, which converts sunlight into carbohydrates for the plant. Their insect diet provides extra nutrients, rather than energy. I’m glad this question was discussed in a story focused so much on science. I’m not so happy with the Reverend’s hypothesis. Perhaps I’ll go with the all-encompassing: magic! What am I saying, the Reverend’s hypothesis is basically magic.

“How does it feel, whispered Faith, to come back to your memories and find yourself missing and a dead person in your place?”

Photography, which supposedly only shows the truth, is manipulated to trick characters and spread more lies. Momento mori photographs fascinate me and repulse me and freak me out. The interweaving of Victorian mourning rituals with the Sunderly family’s grief and the consequences of the death of the male head of a household, is clever. A perfect combination of strong women conquering the obstacles of their time.

“When every door is closed, one learns to climb through windows.”

I loved the cover, until I read that the fruit of the lie tree looks more citrusy than apple-like. Ok, so I still love the illustration, but Vincent Chong didn’t get quite the right brief.

The Lie Tree

I also love the cover under the dust jacket – a replica of the title font with a tree growing from the T. My annoying library stuck the barcode right on top of this beautiful typography on the dust jacket. The sumptuous design is by Maria T. Middleton. I always love her work and the black title page is divine.

beautiful title page

“And the flash of a smile was enough for Faith to understand that Mrs Vellet was not dry, and Miss Hunter was not cold, and to sense a moment of rightness like two notes in accord, the tiniest fragment of a melody that she did not understand.”