It’s difficult to know where to begin the gushing with this novel – in its ingenious concept, in its expertly crafted plotting, or in its edible and quite delicious prose.
Faith is the precocious young daughter of the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a man of god but also a man of science, who drags the family away from a happy life on the mainland to a remote island where his reputation remains intact. An amateur archaeologist, he achieved fame in England for uncovering fossilised remains of the Nephilim – the offspring of fallen angels and human women – and in doing so proved the Bible to be true using science.
Unfortunately it was all faked, but only on this storm-swept island does Faith find out why. Her father has been cultivating a Lie Tree, a plant that is fed not with water and sunlight but with dishonesty. Eat of its fruits and you shall learn truth, but to get those fruits to grow you need to convince people that your lies are facts. The bigger the lie, the bigger the truth. So if you were a reverend who wanted to learn the truth about Creation, you might try to convince people that you have found archaeological proof behind Christian scripture.
After her father is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, Faith has to work out whether he committed suicide, or whether he was murdered. The Lie Tree will be able to help, but if it’s the former, what kind of truth might it have told him?
Even though this is a young adult novel, like Philip Pullman, Frances Hardinge doesn’t write down to her audience. Indeed, she writes up to them, treating them intelligently, able to cope with complex plots and complicated, challenging themes. It’s clear why it won the Costa Book of the Year, but a good part of the reason might well be that some of the adult readers didn’t even realise they were reading a children’s novel.
The ending ties all of the novel#s different threads together in a way that might be a bit more straightforward than everything that preceded it would suggest. Ultimately it is aimed at younger readers, so needs a happy ending, but it’s interesting to consider the different direction an adult version of the same plot might have gone. There may have been only one way it could have ended happily, really. All the other ways (including one it seemed to be veering towards at one point) would have verged on the existentially depressing.