Book Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I chose this book as one of my picks for a young adult book club I’m in. The description intrigued me since it’s about a “strong female character” growing up in a time when females were discouraged from being scientists. What also intrigued me was the dark streak inherent in the title: the book centers around the presence of a plant (the lie tree) that grows when fed lies, reminiscent of the biblical tree of knowledge.

I wasn’t sure when I picked it up whether it would be a realistic story or one of magical realism. It turned out to be mostly realistic, with the focus on the way women were treated in Victorian-era British society, during which time only men were expected to indulge in natural science. The novel also examined the balance between science and religion manifesting during that time period. With ideas of evolution casting doubt on religion, people like the protagonist’s father were looking for ways to reconcile the two.

The book started slowly, but the mystery and atmosphere of the island of Vane helped to build the complexity of the plot. Faith, the main character, serves as an appropriate guide for young adult readers to navigate the customs of the time. Even as I read, I was thinking about more complex novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and how this book might lend insight into the time period Hardy addresses. Faith’s name is symbolic, as she lives in a time balancing religion and science. The novel includes characters—male scientists—who blatantly measure the skull sizes of women and men as physical evidence that men are smarter (because their brains, and therefore skulls, are larger). This is the mindset Faith is up against when she aspires to become a scientist.

Her brother has been groomed to be a leader in the family since his birth, even though Faith is clearly the able one. But even the young boy is forced into the conformity of the time: he is forced to wear a one-sleeved jacket to discourage his bad habit of being left-handed.

And most of these struggles help to echo the importance of social class. Faith and her family live in a house run by servants, and the class differences are clear. I liked how the book did not hide the resentment the servants had for the families they served. For an American reader living in modern times, I would imagine this type of class distinction would be difficult to imagine, even with today’s talk of disparity between classes.

The plant itself was, for me, the most intriguing part of the novel. I enjoyed the descriptions, though most of the book was told in a straightforward manner. A few passages stood out with vivid imagery.

For readers, the only cautions would be some slight violence, including several accidents that are investigated as suicides; however, none of these are shown in an explicit way. As a female scientist in Victorian times, Faith would appeal to female readers, especially ones aspiring to break into fields traditionally shut to them.

The book moved a bit more slowly than I would have liked, and I wanted a bit more depth and darkness woven into the tree itself, but the book is written so that it could be appropriate for middle school readers, so these elements would probably have pushed it up to a high-school-only level.

 

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