The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge


My RE teacher relished moral dilemmas.  She’d take a Commandment, thou shalt not kill, or thou shalt not bear false witness, say, and then question us to explore their outer limits. Would you murder one person to save the lives of many? Would you lie to hide a painful truth?

Faith Sunderly, the teenage heroine of The Lie Tree, faces a similarly perplexing dilemma. It’s the second half of the 19th century, ten years after Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species changed the story of the earth. Faith’s father is the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a clergyman and also a renowned natural scientist, famed for finding a fossilised human shoulder with faint traces of wings spreading from it: an angel.

The Reverend uproots the whole family – Faith, her younger brother, her mother and her uncle – from Kent to the remote island of Vane, ostensibly to attend a dig but Faith soon discovers he’s actually fleeing a scandal.

When the scandal reaches Vane and the Reverend is found dead slung over a tree halfway up a cliff the inference is that he committed suicide.  Faith, though, is convinced her father’s been murdered and sets out to discover what happened.  Searching through his private papers she reads of a strange, ‘Mendacity’ Tree that lives in darkness, feeds on lies and gives knowledge of something secret and personally important to whoever eats its fruit.  And thinking back to her last excursion with her father Faith realises she knows where to find the Tree.  So should she exploit its mysterious properties to find out how her father died? Should she spread lies to find out the truth?

The Lie Tree won the Costa Book of the Year in 2015, only the second children’s book to win Costa/Whitbread book of the year since that award was introduced in 1985.  (The first was The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pulman in 2001). It’s easy to see why it was chosen.  Thrilling as a mystery tale it’s also an engaging coming of age story with a healthy dose of feminism to boot.  (Faith is belittled and patronised despite her keen intellect and love of natural sciences, including by her father.) The other-worldly Tree is weirdly unsettling.

And when hubby asks what he should buy for his teenage niece or nephew? Sorted!

Rating: *** Highly Recommended

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