My Favorite Middle Grade Novel of 2016
If you love literature and you have read quite a bit of it, then you know that there are many varieties of good writing. There are writers who are gifted at story telling and craft a work that draws you in and pulls you along at a fast clip. There are writers who are gifted at creating memorable, complex characters that they allow you to get to know intimately. There are writers who put words on a page that read like lines from great poetry, their sentences like a handcrafted delight you savor on your tongue. Then there are writers who turn the world on its side, making you see and think about it in a whole new way. There are a few writers who embody all of these qualities, Philip Pullman and Frances Hardinge coming readily to mind. Interestingly, Pullman and Hardinge are also the only authors of literature for children to win the prestigious Costa Award, which is comparable to the Pulitzer, and is traditionally given to works written for adults.
Fly By Night was the first book by Hardinge that I read and I knew immediately that I was reading something truly special. Hardinge created a complex world ruled by religion and literacy in the absence of an effective monarch, all set in an alternate history universe. Everything about Fly By Night amazed and continues to amaze me, from the setting to the characters and their intricately Dickensian names to the mysterious political and religious intrigue driving the plot. Hardinge's newest book, and Costa Winner, The Lie Tree, is every bit as magnificently written as Fly By Night but it is also a much more personal, poignant story that is more pointedly philosophical and political. And, as I slowly came to realize over the course of the book, The Lie Tree is also a book about women and especially the challenge of being a woman in the 19th century and the various ways that women met with these challenges. As the main character observes near the end of the novel, "Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies."
As the novel begins, Faith Sunderly, teenaged daughter of the gentleman scientist and clergyman, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, finds herself tucked between two crates on the deck of a ship that is taking her family and many of their belongings from Kent to the remote island of Vane where her father has been invited to observe an archaeological dig. Hidden from sight, Faith overhears her father and her Uncle Miles discussing the real reason for their retreat to the island. As Miles points out to Erasmus, one of the most "widely read and respected newspapers in the nation has decried you a fraud and a cheat."
Faith respects and reveres her father, constantly hoping that her interest and intellect in the sciences will win her his attention, but seed of knowledge takes root in her and begins to grow. When her father is found dead and her seemingly frivolous, beautiful mother Myrtle schemes with Miles to make his death look like an accident and not a suicide, which would leave his family destitute, Faith decides to take matters into her own hands. She steals her father's papers - his scientific notebooks, his letters, his financial records, and begins reading through them. She discovers that, years ago while traveling through China Erasmus encountered rumors of a very rare plant specimen. In an attempt to help a fellow Englishman accused of murder, he found the secret hiding place of the plant but was unable to save his countryman. Faith quickly uncovers the hiding place of this specimen, which Erasmus brought to Vane and hid before his death, as well as the true nature of this strange plant, the Lie Tree.
Through his experiments, Erasmus came to learn that the Lie Tree thrives and bears fruit when a lie is whispered to to. The more people who believe the lie, the larger the fruit. In turn, consuming the fruit reveals a truth to the person who eats it. A religious and scientific man, Erasmus perpetrated a lie that he hoped was big enough to reveal, in the interest of truth, if man was, "crafted in God's image and given the world, or was he the self-deluding grandson of some grimacing ape?" He would, "borrow from the Bank of Truth, but in the end would pay back in full and with interest." As Faith reads through her father's notebook she decides to use the Lie Tree to discover her father's murderer.
The idea of lies and the variety of lies consumed me as I read The Lie Tree, so much so that I missed an important theme in the book until almost the end. As Faith's investigation begins, there are necessary lies she must, as a young girl, tell, in order to be able to move about the island. As the lies pile up, she finds herself easily using the the fears of her six-year-old brother against the ill-treated, vengeful housemaid who robs the Reverend Sunderly of his grave, prompting an inquest. The more lies Faith tells, the more she is able to insert herself into situations that give her a glimpse into the machinations of the adult world and life on the island. She also stands back and watches her mother manipulate both the Reverend Clay and Doctor Jacklers with lies of omission as Myrtle maneuvers to keep the family solvent. When Faith finally manages unveil the murderer, it is someone who has also told lies and hidden truths in the passionate pursuit of scientific discovery and she finds herself thinking, "We could have been friends." She also finds herself spluttering in disagreement, along with the murderer, when her captor declares, upon seeing the Lie Tree, that there are things, "science cannot explain." The complexities are rich and varied in this stunning book.
As I read The Lie Tree, I marked sentences and passages that exemplified Hardinge's gorgeous prose and had to stop midway because there were too many slips of paper falling out of my book. But I do want to share a few with you here:
She had tumbled off the safe, hallowed shore of childhood, and now she was in no-man's water, neither one thing nor another, like a mermaid. Until she dragged herself up on the rock of marriage, she was difficult.
As usual, the adulation slid off the Reverend's stony reticence and was soaked up by the handkerchief of Myrtle's busy charm.
Faith thought that it must be very relaxing being Dr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people's feelings beneath his well intentioned boots.
There was a dangerous joy in talking, even with this enemy. It made Faith realize how she had been trapped in her own head. Trapped in the house. Trapped in the Sunderly family.
And, finally, when Faith confronts her mother and begins to understand her reasons for inviting the attentions of other men after the Reverend's death, Myrtle explains the laws regarding a suicide, telling Faith,
This is a battlefield, Faith! Women find themselves on the battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.
If you have read this far, I am sure you will get a copy of The Lie Tree and experience for yourself the, "distinctive voice and vividly crafted prose of France Hardinge," as a favorite writer of mine, Linda Buckley-Archer, author of the excellent Time Quake Trilogy , says in her review.
Frances Hardinge's other new book, review coming soon!
Books by Frances Hardinge
US covers on the left, UK covers on the right
Source: Review Copy