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The Lie Tree

The Lie Tree coverOh, The Lie Tree. For so long — since January, in fact, when I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC — I’ve been holding this up as an exemplar of great writing. Along with The Passion of Dolssa this has consistently held top billing in my head. It’s brilliant and unconventional; the writing is excellent; the themes unexpected: religion and science and feminism, oh my, with a lovely side of what it means to grow up.

And look, I still stand by this one as an excellent book. But after re-reading, I find I also have some questions. Let’s dig in!

The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge
Amulet, May 2016
Reviewed from ARC

6 stars! SIX. So clearly, this is a book to reckon with. Reviewers have praised everything about this — the language, the plot, the scope, the atmosphere, the characters, and the genre. More than that, this won the Costa prize in the UK — apparently the first children’s book to do so since The Amber Spyglass. Which is befitting, because like Pullman’s conclusion, this is a book deeply concerned with faith and with the tension between science and religion.

Let’s talk about faith. And Faith. Where this book falters — no book, after all, is perfect — is probably in a certain lack of subtlety. Faith’s name; the detailed descriptions of things that tie directly to the meta-textual conversation about women’s roles (corsets, crinolines), in stark contrast to little or no description of other, equally historical, elements (what exactly is a dog-cart, and why is Myrtle disdainful of it?) Interestingly, in a book concerned so deeply with faith and dogma, with the shift from world-views steeped in religion to views steeped in science — this is set only 10 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species — there is a lack of faith on the part of the author for the readership.

But then there’s Faith, a passionate, often unkind character who leaps off the page, so strongly written that it’s tempting to forgive the issues of overt messaging. And there’s the treatment of faith: Faith is losing it, rapidly; she’s a natural scientist by inclination and (self-administered) education, but she’s also the daughter of a reverend. The very reverend who discovered possible fossil evidence that indicates the veracity of the bible. She believes unquestioningly in her father, who looms menacingly over his family, but the events that kick off the novel call into question whether the honest, upstanding reverend is perhaps just a charlatan. She believes in science, and yet she must grapple with the titular tree, which seems to defy science. She believes that women can’t do anything, because even though she knows her own worth, the world has conspired against her faith in herself — and then she finds that they may not be permitted by society to wield power, but that doesn’t make women powerless.

As a character, Faith is a tour de force, both sympathetic and unappealing. She’s sneaky and sly, fierce and often unkind but ultimately a good person — witness her confession to save the (even less pleasant) Jeanne, or her nearly endless patience with Howard, who is not the easiest of siblings. Her growing empathy for others, her recognition that there is, in the end, a moral compass and a choice: all are commendable and make her a protagonist of note, regardless of likability. Her interactions with Paul are perhaps the strongest moments of character study; there’s a kind of madness that takes her over when faced with a peer who — because of the circumstances of their first meeting — sees her for what and who she really is. That’s the Faith a we as readers both admire and maybe fear a little. That’s understandable: Faith fears herself, too.

And the language. Like the theme of faith, which is perhaps too on the nose at times but also adds up to a fairly sublime thematic study, the language is at times too much — adjective after adjective, complex but overwrought metaphors — but often is simply stunning.

Finally, the discourse on the nature of lies seems almost prescient as the news erupts with stories of fake news and the way it propagates. As Faith notes, a lie will grow; it takes only a little work to plant it and then others willingly feed it: witness Pizzagate, or any number of other stories, from the right and the left. Faith is a reluctant, scientific liar; unlike her father or Agatha Lambent, she doesn’t want the tree for power but for truth, and the purity of that desire — which is clearly at odds with the nature of the tree — is what allows her to step out of it’s spell. But until that moment, as she seeds lies and watches them spread, Faith becomes a commentator on the way truth is too often malleable and the way people willingly embrace false stories for deeply personal reasons, and above all for “truthiness”. Of course the harsh, stern reverend would haunt Jeanne after his death, because she’s been causing trouble and has anger in her heart; her guilt makes the haunting feel real and therefore makes the lie grow. Truth is not the same as factual, after all.

This is fantasy, and a gothic, and a novel of manners, and historical fiction, and a feminist polemic. It’s a mash of so many things, all woven together into something that is clearly striking chords with critics. Hardinge has a control of her material few authors can manage, and in other hands this would probably be nothing but a spectacular mess, rather than mostly spectacular.

And yet.

This is a book that struck me as diminished on a second read, much like Reverend Sunderly after his lies become known. The flaws I mentioned above had escaped my notice until that second read; additionally, the villainess seemed trite on round 2 when initially I was struck only by the way a female pulling the strings provided Faith with yet another problematic image of female power, both enticing and disturbing. The Lie Tree itself, the fantasy element in an otherwise deeply realistic text, seems like an outlier for exactly that reason, and the scientific discourse surrounding it, the grasping at straws to explain the inexplicable, belies the narrative about science as the great equalizer.

(Also, can we talk about the tree and Eden and the fruit of knowledge and the downfall of womankind? And the rejection of the tree as the saving of Faith? And the choice to make it an apple on the cover, potentially driving home the perplexing, fascinating read of the tree as that tree?)

I think this is a marvel, but possibly one of diminishing returns. Or potentially a third read will redeem it? We’ll have to see next month!

 

 

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I feel like so many people love this book, but it didn’t work for me at all. (In a way, Karen, I’m glad it didn’t work so well for you, too – much as I love Hardinge’s body of work and want an award for her – because it was getting lonely on my end!)

    My first problem is how obvious everything is. Not that Hardinge is ever especially subtle, but in previous books, where her settings were wholly fantasy, she could bury her themes. Here, she hits you over the head with them. Faith is, almost unfortunately, such a familiar progressive-character-born-too-soon that her story arc is predictable. I found myself sympathizing with her mother much more – her mother, who recognizes and works within the constraints of the world she lives in and is a much more believably historical character as a result. Then there’s her father – not only a backwards religious character, but a liar to boot, and complicit in a death, and a terrible parent!

    But being obvious isn’t a story flaw. What ARE story flaws to me: I don’t understand how a scientist can look at a tree that grows as a result of lies – and then believe what the tree says as truth. I can’t imagine how a member of the clergy would look at the tree – like you pointed out, rife with religious implications! – and not run the other way from the temptation. (Maybe I’m remembering incorrectly, because it’s been a while since I read this, but didn’t the reverend mention that he was hoping this tree was that tree?) These are two aspects that sink the story for me, because they should prevent it from getting off the ground in the first place. (I’m mixing a lot of metaphors, but hopefully I’m being clear regardless.)

    I’m so sad about this, because I WANTED to love this. I think Hardinge’s previous work is fantastic and I love her writing. But this – down to Faith’s name and the cover with the apple! – is just too heavy-handed.

    (All hail this line, though: “Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies.” I cheered.)

  2. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    While, to my mind, Hardinge’s best books are THE LOST CONSPIRACY and the unpublished A FACE LIKE GLASS, I still think this one is head and shoulders above most of the other contenders this year. I, too, am fond of THE PASSION OF DOLSSA. I also like SAMURAI RISING and MARCH BOOK THREE. No need to look elsewhere, Printz committee!

    I’m fascinated by the reinvention of Hardinge as a YA author, and I wonder if you would re-evaluate some of your criticisms if you saw this as a MG book? An 18-year-old might agree with some of your problems on a second read; a 12-year-old? No chance. Do you see a place in the Printz conversation for discussing the developmental differences in the audience, or is it all about us adults?

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Also, THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR. Love!

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I am way less likely to ding a middle grade book for being obvious for exactly that reason, and I do think there’s a place for developmental differences in the discussion — but I don’t think that’s the issue here, or if it is, the book is deeply flawed in other ways. I have a hard time seeing the language or the religious aspects of the thematic content as middle grade, for example, so there’s a mismatch between scope, style, and messaging. Although if you’d care to make an argument to the contrary…

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        What makes the language YA as opposed to middle grade? Or likewise the themes? Hardinge has consistently written the same kind of book, but it wasn’t until Abrams picked her up and rebranded her as a YA author that we’ve paid her Printz attention here. She’s still a children’s author in the UK . . .

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          Cuckoo’s Song wasn’t branded as YA, was it? It felt much more cusp-like and we only ended up covering it here because I loved it so and thought it could read up. The Lie Tree feels genuinely YA; the Costa folks said it was aimed at “teenage girls” and while the gendering there is aggravating, I think they read it as I did, as a YA novel. I can’t find anything on the Pan Macmillan page to indicate the age bracketing they gave it, and don’t know enough about UK publishing to know whether that’s common or not… More than anything else, this is the first of Hardinge’s books where I didn’t immediately assume middle grade — not to be all unscientific, but it feels YA.

          Also — to be slightly more evidence based — I don’t think this is just like her earlier books. For starters, Hardinge has left secondary world fantasy behind after a good run with it; Cuckoo’s Song was nearly historical fantasy and this is primarily historical fiction, albeit with supernatural elements. Also Faith is older than previous Hardinge protagonists, and the questions being asked (what is the worth of a person? How do we value ourselves when no one else does? Do we follow science or faith, and what is truth?) are explicitly tied to the real world and thus the reader’s own experience, which again feels different from what I’ve read of her earlier works (I never read the sequel to Fly by Night and I don’t think I finished The Lost Conspiracy, or maybe I just disliked it enough that I can’t remember most of it).

          ETA: I DID read The Lost Conspiracy, and gave it 4 stars on Goodreads, so I must have liked it at the time, which maybe is a theme here?

          • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

            I thought I had responded to this, but checked back to find nothing. I don’t want to belabor the points I brought up because they are genuine questions, and I don’t pretend to have answers, or at least definitive ones.

            I will say, however, that to my mind, Hardinge has only really written two other-worldly titles in THE LOST CONSPIRACY and A FACE LIKE GLASS. WELL WITCHED has a contemporary setting; CUCKOO SONG has a twentieth century setting; THE LIE TREE is nineteenth century; and FLY BY NIGHT and FLY TRAP, while less obvious, are Early Modern Europe. Even if you don’t agree on this last pair, it seems like a 50/50 split.

  3. I loved this book, though I will admit I have only read it the once. It was everything I wanted: science, magic, lies, the recognition of subversive female power, beautiful imagery. While it was not entirely subtle, I think if I’d read it as a young teenager I would have been utterly blown away and completely surprised. As Jonathan said, this might be a case of really holding the sensibilities and understanding of the audience in mind. I personally wasn’t a particularly sophisticated thinker at 13, I needed things to not be subtle.

    I will say that after I gushed about the book to several co-workers, they sheepishly admitted that they’d never gotten past the first third or so of the book, that it was too slow. Granted, these were mostly fantasy fans that were waiting for the magic to start happening and are generally not fans of historical fiction.

    The apple on the front cover drove me crazy, as the fruit in the book seemed more like a citrus to me.

    • Alys, I’m fascinated to hear about fantasy fans who found the early part of the book too slow. I also loved this book (and have also only read it once), and while I now read a fair amount of fantasy, it’s the rare fantasy book that really grabs me. I grew up on MUCH more historical fiction. It’s funny–until I read Karyn’s post, I had almost forgotten that this was a book with a strong fantastic element, as it was mostly the historical content that stuck in my brain. I’m curious to hear what other Fantasy People feel about the tree and the fantasy layer.

      Strongly agree about the fruit, too–much like the Biblical fruit, actually, I’m pretty sure it’s not an apple.

      This is the kind of thing I would’ve read at 13 or 14 (if I’d picked up a fantasy book at all), and I would’ve wanted to talk about “the rejection of the tree as the saving of Faith” forever at that age and felt really smart doing it. (I’m still interested to talk about it as a literary element now!) To have a reverend’s daughter named Faith didn’t seem unrealistic to me, and to have her faith be faith in Science is interesting.

  4. Questions that spring to my mind from this discussion:

    Should the cover art ever be a discussion point at the RC table?
    When can a character’s name choice be the death knell for a book?
    Is there anything in the criteria that mentions the strength of a book on a re-read/that it holds up to multiple re-reads?

  5. Karyn Silverman says:

    Great questions, TK. I am totally rising to the bait.

    Cover art is part of design, so my understanding of the P&P is that it should be admissible. I also saw the finished version last night, with the apple in black and white art on every chapter (except the two chapters where the art lacks the fruit, for no reason that we could discern) so the apple — which is absolutely not how the fruit is described — repeats in the interior design as well, which is definitely indicated as admissible per the P&P. This detail, and design in general in fiction, probably doesn’t matter enough to be the make it or break it for any book, much less this one. But since the apple imagery lends itself to a specific reading of the text and specifically the tree, there’s a lot to be said (this was our award spec-focused book club’s YA selection this month, and we did in fact rail about this design decision).

    (And yeah, I know design is probably not in the author’s control, but really books are collaborative and there are always things we ding books for that might be editorial decisions, we just can’t tell who made what call when it’s textual, and anyway the Printz is an award for the book in it’s entirety, not an author award.)

    I don’t think Faith’s name is a death knell — and to Kate’s point, I don’t even think it’s unlikely that it would be her name. It’s just really really obvious and pointed, and is an example of the way Hardinge never seems to let the themes surface naturally, which might be a death knell, or at least worth examining as a flaw.

    And finally — the reread question. You are 100% right (as I think you know!) that in no way is it stated that a book must stand up to multiple reads. But based on my experience and that of several colleagues/friends who have served on the RC over the years, rereading is hard to avoid, because when we’re talking about a small handful of books under a microscope, there’s a level of textual familiarity that does beg rereading. Also, many (including me, clearly!) will argue that a truly excellent book should at the very least be able to stand up to that degree of scrutiny. So if it doesn’t — and again, I might be an outlier on this book at least, and anyway I’m not saying this is a bad book, just not the apex of all 2016 reads ever I initially thought it was — anyway, if the book can’t withstand a second read, I do think that has the potential to hurt it in the conversation.

    • Karyn,
      I agree with you that the Design criteria is up to a lot of interpretation. I remember on our committee we had a book that the jacket copy actually listed one of the main characters by the wrong name. It was a little hard to ding the author for that, but as you say, the award is for the book not the writer.
      As for the rereading… although I obviously understand the reasons and benefits of a reread, or multiple rereads, I still feel that some books are actually penalized by too many rereads. But that may not be the case with The Lie Tree, where you have found some concerns that the glow of the first read may have hid. Generally I agree that rereading is useful, and critical for the top titles, as long as the RC members consider both the values and liabilities that can manifest and analyze accordingly.

  6. The Lie Tree is a book of layers. Layers underneath layers. After I finished the book I marveled at all that Hardinge crammed in to one book. Yet, I still am not crazy about it…even with all those layers. Not sure if it had to do with the cast of characters which I didn’t really like, my inability to picture the setting or the action very well, or it is just not my favorite type of book. Not sure. Anyway I do and did recognize it was worthy of praise by readers, and consideration from the RealCommittee. it is just not my favorite. I should reread it to find those things that Karyn mentioned, but I didn’t like it enough the first time to want to read it again. Ha!

  7. FWIW I read the book twice and liked it even more the second time. Since my first read was years ago (as I got it from the UK when it came out there) and the second months ago I am unable to be terribly specific about what made it work so well for me or respond to the questions here. What I recall liking was the gothic atmosphere, the vivid sensory details (I think of them in the rain on the boat for example), the complexity of the different characters — especially the mother who is slowly revealed to be something quite different from what she seems to be for most of the book, and the questioning themes.

    I’m amused to recall that when I saw a review of it before my reread and before there was a lot of buzz, I commented that it wasn’t a fantasy but historical fiction. Of course, there is indeed the fantasy element of the tree, but somehow that was not what I remembered. This and A FACE LIKE GLASS are my favorites of hers. When I discovered that Abrams was bringing out THE LIE TREE I pestered them about A FACE LIKE GLASS (thought it might be too weird for them) and am thrilled it and all her backlist will come out through them. It is absolutely a fantasy more in the vein of THE LOST CONSPIRACY, I’d say.

  8. I read this book last week and my first stop after finishing it was here to see what Karyn had to say and what was being mentioned in the comments. I don’t have plans to re-read this one soon but for me everything stood up and I don’t expect that to diminish as I think more about the story.

    This book was atmospheric and really evocative. I also like the balance between faith and science which isn’t something I’ve seen often in fiction–historical or otherwise. I think it’s interesting that there is so much talk of the actual Tree being a fantasy element in the story when Faith is so intent on it being something grounded in scientific fact.

    When Faith first discovers the Lie Tree she is determined to understand it because, as she notes in the book, “”Magic” was not an answer; it was an excuse to avoid looking for one.” I still don’t really buy this as historical fantasy since everything in the story tends to support the idea that magic or fantasy is the product of wild imagination which comes to play as Faith’s lies begin to grow. While the explanation of the tree isn’t great it comes at a time when scientists are still struggling to find ways to articulate evolution and other archaeology so it seems fitting that Faith’s story should revolve around trying and perhaps failing to explain a tree that initially seems so fantastical.

    As to Mrs. Lambent–I was surprised by her role as the main villain even while I knew that it’s not uncommon for modern historical fiction to place women in that role. I think the choice was still interesting despite the familiarity because it again plays into the ways femininity can be exploited and manipulated which Faith explores throughout the narrative as she tries to make sense of her role in the adult world that seems to have little use for her as a not-quite child and as a young woman.

    The last thing I’ll say is that I was impressed with how well this story worked for a character of Faith’s age. I wasn’t sure how a story with this scope could work with a protagonist of fourteen but it all came together seamlessly by the end. I was pleased that Faith’s age felt very deliberate and crucial to the story as many of her decisions and, especially, the way she idolizes her father and blindly struggles to earn his approval and respect would not have made sense with a character even a year older.

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