Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree begins with a gloomy, wet boat journey to a gloomy, wet island in the English Channel.  Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly, our protagonist, is moving with her family to the Isle of Vane, so that her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, can consult on an archaeological dig.  It's the 1860s, and amateur natural scientists like Erasmus are grappling with the new, controversial theory of evolution, while trying to reconcile it with their ironclad belief in the Biblical stories of creation.  Erasmus's claim to fame is having discovered a fossil of an apparently winged man, but as the inquisitive Faith realizes soon after settling in the family's new house on the island, the reason for their hasty relocation is that the authenticity of this find--and of many of Erasmus's other discoveries--has been called into question.  When Erasmus is found dead, Faith's mother and uncle quickly scramble to protect him from the accusation of suicide, but Faith believes that her father has been murdered, and determines to find his killer.

All this--the 19th century setting, the bleak and isolated landscape, the small island community where currents of connection and enmity run beneath the surface, the murder mystery, the tone of barely-suppressed horror as our heroine peels back the supposed gentility of her family and neighbors--is very familiar, the stuff of novels going back at least a hundred years (I was particularly struck, while reading The Lie Tree, with how it recalls The Hound of the Baskervilles, though it no doubt has many other antecedents).  It's a little surprising--and, in the first half of the novel, a little disappointing too--for a story like this to come to us from Frances Hardinge, an author I fell in love with, in no small part, for her ability to construct elaborate, minutely-observed fantasy worlds.  Even Verdigris Deep, an early Hardinge novel set in the real world and present day, had more fantasy worldbuilding than The Lie Tree, which apart from one fantastic element is a thoroughly naturalistic novel (I have not yet read Cuckoo Song, Hardinge's previous novel, so I'm not sure where it falls on the fantasticness scale).

The problem--or perhaps I should qualify, my problem--with The Lie Tree's naturalism is that Hardinge is a writer who likes to explain her novel's worlds.  More specifically, she likes to explain the mores and conventions that govern them, the currents of prejudice, propriety, and artifice that make their societies run.  This is great when those societies have been invented from whole cloth--when she needs to explain how social class determines how many different emotions one gets to express in A Face Like Glass, or how the tensions between colonizers and colonists have forced an ethnic group despised by both to adopt curious social customs in Gullstruck Island--but to a reader of my age and experience (which, to be clear, are not the novel's target audience), it's a lot less tolerable when Hardinge needs to explain the rules by which Victorian society is governed.  I don't need Faith to explain to me what a curate is, or why On the Origin of the Species threw such a bombshell into Victorian society.  The first half of The Lie Tree, which sets up Erasmus's death and Faith's investigation into it, is littered with scenes in which Hardinge spells out the rules of the novel's world.  A lot of these passages have power, such as this scene, in which Faith is surprised when a strange man intrudes on her games with her younger brother:
Fourteen years of trained fears broke into full stampede.  A strange man.  She was a girl, nearly a woman, and of all things she must never be near a strange man without protectors and witnesses.  That way lay a chasm in which a thousand terrible things could happen.
Or this one, in which Faith's mother Myrtle explains to her the proper way to order a servant:
You phrased it as a question to be polite.  Will you fetch the tea?  Could you please speak with cook?  But instead of your voice pitch going up at the end, you let it droop downward, to show that it was not really a question, and they were not expected to say no. 
But taken together, they have the effect of making the first half of The Lie Tree feel obvious and over-articulated.  We do not, for example, need Faith to spell out to us, after the observation about speaking to servants, that "that was the way her mother talked to her."  It should be obvious from Myrtle's general air of distraction, and from the attention that she pays to her husband and son, and deprives from Faith.  The strongest portions of this half of the book come when we get a sense that there are things about Faith's world that she does not yet understand, such as the casual way in which she drops it into the narrative that there were five dead Sunderly babies between her and her younger brother Howard.  For Faith, who is young, devoted to her father, and casually dismissive of her mother for using her looks and coquetry to get what she wants, this is merely a statement of fact.  We see it as a sign of what's to come, Faith's growing understanding of what it means to be a woman in the novel's world.  But moments like these are the exception, not the rule.

After Erasmus's death, Faith discovers his most secret specimen, a tree whose fruit produces true visions.  But the tree only flowers if it is "fed" lies, which must then be spread among other people.  Faith, determined to prove that her father was murdered, decides to use the tree, spreading rumors that his ghost continues to haunt the island, angry at the villagers who have insisted that a coroner's inquest be held to determine whether Erasmus killed himself, or that the archaeological dig Erasmus was invited to is actually searching for hidden smuggler treasure.  These lies, helped along by the observant, manipulative Faith's careful nurturing of them, spread like wildfire, causing unrest and violence within the community, to Faith's mingled horror and exhilaration.

Like many other Hardinge heroines, Faith is someone who has been warped and stunted by her upbringing (in fact the warping and stunting of children appears to be a general theme in the book--Faith's brother is being "trained out" of his left-handedness by being made to wear a jacket with the left sleeve pinned up).  In Faith's case, what has stunted her are the restrictive gender norms of her society, which teach her that her only value is in being "good"--which is to say, obedient and meek--and that her intelligence and curiosity are aberrations, to be ignored and suppressed.  As in her other novels, Hardinge is too clever and too honest to promise that the effects of fourteen years of this learned self-hate can ever be fully cured.  The core of The Lie Tree is Faith coming to realize how much she's been shaped by a childhood that has taught her to see herself as worthless, and by a society that refuses to recognize her intelligence and capability, and calls her monstrous when she expresses any emotion other than demure, meek acceptance.  That the result has been anger and frustration isn't very surprising to us, but to Faith it is only further confirmation that she is a bad person.

Using the Lie Tree allows Faith to give free rein to her worst impulses, to the feelings of resentment and frustration that have been allowed to fester in her, and to the joy of having power over other people's lives instead of feeling powerless in her own life.  She ends up doing terrible things: tormenting the servant girl who first spread the rumor that Erasmus killed himself, and blackmailing a local boy into helping with her investigation.  One of her rumors even convinces the villagers to attack and seriously injure the local postmistress, Miss Hunter.  But at the same time, exercising her power allows Faith to see more of the world than she previous had--she goes below stairs, interacts with strange men, sees the seedy underbelly of her polite society, and learns to understand the adults in her family.  It's an experience that forces Faith to see herself for what she is, and to decide what kind of person she wants to be.  Again, as in many of Hardinge's novels, salvation is found not in overcoming your past, which is impossible, but in learning to live with it, and be the best person you can be within the limitations it has imposed upon you.

As you might have guessed already, The Lie Tree is fundamentally about gender, and its use of lies as Faith's weapon--in a society that leaves women no other tools but their words and their ability to manipulate and insinuate, and then castigates them for using those tools to get what they want and need--is an inspired choice that has many complicated nuances.  It is, for example, intriguing that the tree has such obvious Biblical associations, given how often the men in the novel use religion--and the Sin of Eve--to justify distrust and oppression of women.  It is equally intriguing that Faith seems to be so much better than Erasmus at spreading lies without them ever touching her, or having the kind of splashback that Erasmus's lies had on his family.  Once again, there's a lot here that older readers will have seen before--it will surely come as no surprise to such readers that Faith eventually realizes that Myrtle's use of flirtation to get her way is in service of protecting her family with the only means available to her (and Hardinge again hammers the point in just in case anyone misses it).  But there's also a more ambitious project, as Faith's investigations of her world reveal more and more women who are living in the chinks of the world-machine, invisibly breaking the rules, and only occasionally reaching out to each other to say that such a life is actually possible.

Hardinge is hardly the first one to point this out, but when a society defines "proper" feminine behavior as rigidly and as narrowly as Faith's does, it ends up producing a lot of women who are, by definition, monstrous.  And it's therefore up to those women to decide what kind of monsters they will be, to come up with mores of behavior where society has abdicated its responsibility to do so.  Faith starts the novel horrified by her own intelligence and curiosity, convinced that she is a bad person because she loves to spy and eavesdrop and figure things out.  And, to be fair, these are all propensities that can easily lead a person astray, and when she indulges them in her investigation of her father's death, Faith does terrible damage.  The hope that Hardinge offers, at the end of the novel, is that Faith can find out how to be herself, and use her power, in a way that is as honest and honorable as possible.  It's a mingled hope, however.  If Faith wants to be a scientist, she realizes, she is signing up for a lifetime of being discounted, distrusted, and derided, and an afterlife in which she will be forgotten and erased.  And it's a life in which she will always be in danger--from others, and from her own worst impulses.  When Faith tries to apologize to Miss Hunter, she gets the following complex response:
"We both played the gossip game."  Miss Hunter wielded the reins with the confidence of practice.  "After your mother upset Jane Vellet, I was angry and told everyone about that Intelligencer article.  You spread a rumor in turn, but you were not the one that set fire to my house.  A woman like me makes enemies."

Faith wondered what "a woman like me" meant.  Perhaps a willfully happy spinster with a sharp tongue and good salary.  In Faith's eyes, Miss Hunter had always seemed icily smug and unassailable.  Now Faith saw glitters of defiance, and a tightrope beneath her feet.
It's that tightrope that Faith--and, to a lesser extent, all the women in her society--will be walking for the rest of her life.  And it's an admission that makes the happy ending of The Lie Tree--which otherwise might have left me feeling, once again, that this is not a book for me--a lot more tolerable.  Yes, it's a little unbelievable that Faith can come to understand herself as quickly and as fully as she does, and it's a bit of a pipe dream that, at such a young age, she could come to such a full accommodation with her flaws and weaknesses (once again, this is the sort of thing that's easier to swallow in fantasy world than in one that, historical setting nothwithstanding, so closely resembles our own).  But this moment, in which Faith realizes that she will always be in danger of making a mistake, of becoming the monster that society sees her as, and of justifying the violence that is always on the verge of being turned against her, is a powerful statement that not a lot of books--for adults or children--are willing to make.  I still prefer Hardinge as a writer of secondary world fantasies, and I still feel that I was not quite The Lie Tree's ideal audience, but it's moments like this that remind me of Hardinge's brilliance, and her importance to the genre.


Aoede said...

For what it's worth, I too felt that "Lie Tree" went a bit heavy on the exposition and such. I don't think it can be chalked up to treating the historical period as a "secondary world" for the benefit of young modern audiences -- "Cuckoo Song" is also set in a past historical period, and that book read very smoothly to me, understated in its dealing with era. (But the fantastic is more prominent as well; I don't know if that's consequential.)

Kate said...

The first half of the novel was encumbered by Faith's prostration before her father, an unlikable man and unworthy parent. Again and again she sought his love, to the point where I was ready to quit reading. However oppressive the Victorian era was to women, Erasmus' treatment of Faith is above and beyond. I really found the whole tangent unnecessary and confusing. Faith became an untrustworthy narrator, and whatever triumphs she achieved later were tempered by her earlier compulsion to earn the love of a bad father. As a feminist story, this undercut most of what Hardinge tried to convey.

Huge fan. Very disappointed.

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