Let me be frank–
Shawn: As long as I can be Dean and Gus can be Sammy.
Gus: Why do I always have to be Sammy?
Shawn: Fine, he’s Sammy. That makes you Joey Bishop. Is that what you really want? You want to be Joey Bishop?
Let’s start over.
Let me be honest–
The Lie Tree is a perfect example of why I stopped auto-buying authors. I loved Fly by Night (review), sought out the hardcover and added it to my library. The Lie Tree shares many of the same roots–but grows them in a very different way, emerging a prickling specimen, all nettle leaves and nothing I want to bring home.
Faith Sunderly and her family have suddenly left England for Vane Island on the pretext of a fossil dig in some unusual caves. Along with Faith is her father, the Reverend Erasmus, her mother Myrtle, her younger brother Howard, and Uncle Miles. Although the reasoning seems solid as the Reverend has quite the international reputation for fossils, Faith has been sensing something disastrous lurking at the edges. When they arrive at the island, they and the Reverend’s specimen collection are installed in a small house. In their short time, the Reverend and Myrtle manage to alienate many of the island residents, and when the truth of their exile emerges, things go from bad to worse. Faith finds herself trying to understand the adult situation and discover who is behind their troubles.
Plotting is extremely slow; it wasn’t until chapter 15 that events really started to cascade. While a slow build was present in Fly by Night, the beginning had a daffy, playful and imaginary setting that kept me intrigued. The island fails to stand out for me; mostly wild, dismal moor; long, ill-kept roads, random caves and wild cliffs. The Reverend acting irrationally. Myrtle seeking normalcy. Howard wanting reassurance. Once I reached the particular event(s), it became easier to stay interested. Alas; it never obtained the heights of ‘must finish,’ except in the obligatory sense, as in “I must finish reading that ARC for NetGalley.”
Writing is solid. Hardinge is an excellent writer, and this is a solid example of her work, but at the risk of sounding redundant, I preferred her flights of fancy in Fly by Night. Much of the strength is saved for descriptions of the science and for musing on Faith’s budding feminism. “There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at the table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too.” Still, I felt a few of her metaphors were forced, awkwardly reflected from Faith’s thoughts: “The long journey had left them all depleted, like paintbrushes drawn across a broad stretch of canvas.”
The characterization is well done for Faith, but not particularly likable. Faith has the astonishing self-centeredness of many twelve year-olds, and while she is exquisitely attuned to her father and Howard’s moods, she echoes the prejudices of her upbringing and is largely oblivious to the lives of the servants and women. “Now she was humbled, desperate to be permitted any part in interesting conversations. Even so, each time she pretended ignorance, she hated herself and her own desperation.” She’s working hard to understand her family, understand the dynamics of her father’s world, so it’s easy to root for her until one realizes how misaligned both cause and methods are. Many of the other characters are single note, I suspect partly because of Faith’s point of view. However, she does show a depth of understanding of Howard, which is sweet, and eventually comes to understand an island boy. Insight on the lives of older Victorian women is forced upon her by a couple of conversations in the wrap-up.
The fantastical angle to the story come from a plant her father was hiding from everyone, although Faith managed to find out the secret. The tree grows in absolute darkness, seemingly fed on lies. Hardinge loses a bit of her tale here, building too many metaphors; is this a tree from the Garden of Eden that confirms Biblical history? Is it an observable, measurable quantity that confirms Darwinism? Do lies give truth, or breed more lies? Does it matter if you can make money off it? Considering what Faith learns later, isn’t everyone kind of lying most of the time, so why aren’t these trees everywhere?
The ending sort of satisfied, until I thought more about the implications. I’m not sure Faith learned the right lessons at the end; perhaps what Hardinge wrote was the Victorian equivalent of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Which may, after all, be Hardinge’s point, but frankly, I’m going to resist learning her lesson.
Just call me Frank.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Abrams for the ARC.