The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge was recently named 2015's Costa Book of the Year, making it the first children's book to win the prize since Philip Pullman won with The Amber Spyglass in 2001. Having loved Frances Hardinge's previous book Cuckoo Song, I was excited to get stuck into The Lie Tree and I wasn't disappointed.
Faith, The Lie Tree's protagonist, is the teenage daughter of a Victorian clergyman and naturalist, Erasmus Sunderby, who has brought his family to a small island on which he intends to take part in a major fossil excavation project. But the people of the island are strangely hostile to the Sunderby family, and when a death occurs in mysterious circumstances, it's up to Faith to find out why.
The Lie Tree is a captivating blend of historical fiction and fantasy which is also, in part, a feminist coming-of-age tale. Faith, as a girl, is constantly marginalised, ignored and patronised and her scientific interests discouraged. As the book unfolds she makes some fascinating discoveries about some of the other women in the book too, and realises she might have made some misjudgements of her own. All the characters are fascinatingly developed as the story unfolds - I particularly enjoyed the gradual revealing of the smart, protective shrewdness lurking within Myrtle, Faith's apparently vain, shallow mother.
The 'lie tree' itself, a strange plant that feeds on untruths, is a clever and sinister plot device and serves as a creepy metaphor for the destructive, invasive - yet strangely fragile - spread of rumour and deception. However, there are many equally strange elements to this book which are not fantasy at all - Victorian post-mortem photography and mourning conventions, for instance, account for some of the most memorable scenes.
This is a gripping, fascinating and often very touching book, with a deeply sympathetic heroine and a strong sense of atmosphere that brings the setting and the characters beautifully to life. Thoroughly enjoyable.