Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I don’t often read YA literature, and when I do, it is usually because one of my kids is reading it and I wanted to see what they were reading. This is the rare YA book that was on my own reading list. I’m not entirely sure where I got the recommendation, since it has been on for several years, but it was probably one of the sources of book reviews I trust. (Mostly Slate, Lithub, and NPR.) 

The Lie Tree is an unusual book, written by a Brit, set in the Britain of the 19th Century, and centering on the explosion of archeology that led to a complete rethinking of the age of the earth and the development of life. It also has a magic tree that may or may not be descended from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” from Genesis. Oh, and also a somewhat anachronistically feminist teen protagonist. 


One of the things that I had forgotten, having mostly read literary fiction and nonfiction over the last decade, is that YA literature, like its intended audience, is rather unsubtle. I find that a bit irritating, but it comes with the territory. And actually, I ended up enjoying the book overall. 


Faith is the 14 year old daughter of a minister who moonlights as an archaeologist. He and his family essentially flee their home parish to avoid a disgrace. Apparently, as Faith discovers (reading in a chest she shouldn’t have opened…), some of his archaeological “finds” have proven to be fakes. Under this cloud, they take refuge on an island off the south of Cornwall, where the Reverend can assist at a dig. 


Things go wrong from the start, with news of the Reverend’s disgrace hitting the local gossip machine, an accident that nearly kills Faith and her brother when they visit the site, and eventually, her father’s death in what appears to be a suicide. 


Except Faith is sure it isn’t and sets out to prove it. 


The night of his death, her father had taken her with him to hide a mysterious plant in one of the sea caves. She is sworn to secrecy, but suspects that there is a LOT more to the story than he told her. 


Which turns out to be true. The mysterious plant is a “Lie Tree.” It cannot tolerate light, but lives in damp, brackish places. It’s food is lies. So, to feed the tree, you must tell it a lie, then take steps to make people believe that lie. The more people believe it, and the more important the lie, the more the tree grows. A successful lie means it produces fruit. If you then eat that fruit, the tree reveals truth to you about things related to your lie. Well, at least that is what it is supposed to do. What seems to actually happen is that the fruit sends you on a bad acid trip where you gain access to truths you already suspected and knew deep down. Which is, well, something at least. 


In for a penny, in for a point for Faith, as she purloins her father’s letters, and discovers some uncomfortable things about him and the way he obtained the plant. She also investigates (with the help of Paul, a boy her age who becomes her frenemy) and discovers secrets about the island and its inhabitants. 


The basic premise and the unfolding mystery are actually pretty good. In a number of ways, it reminded me of the Flavia de Luce books with its historical setting and plucky heroine. I think Flavia is better drawn than Faith, however, primarily because Flavia seems to think like a child of her era, as weird of a child as she is. Faith, in contrast, thinks a bit too much like a modern woman at times, and her feminist thoughts, while certainly valid, seem anachronistic. She thinks in terms that weren’t invented until much later, and is preachy in her own head. To me, that was the least convincing part of the book. She could have been every bit as much the feminist without the heavy handed approach. Contrast, for example, Middlemarch, or anything by Moliere


In a different way, the relationship issues between Faith and her not-particularly-nice parents are handled with a bludgeon. This, however, feels much more realistic. I still remember being a teen, and still have significant complexities (so to speak) with my relationship with my parents even now. So that Faith would be over the top a bit actually seems likely and believable. It is when it crosses toward the feminist side that things get a bit preachy. 


While anachronistic, Faith’s observations aren’t wrong. In fact, they tend to be spot on about dynamics that still exist today. For example, she is bright and interested in science, but she is routinely dismissed. 


“So you are a craiometrist?” As soon as the words left Faith’s mouth she saw the doctor’s smile fade and knew that she had made a mistake. He had been enjoying his explanation, and now she had spoiled things by knowing too much.


This is a theme throughout the book. Faith has to play dumb and act according to gender expectations in order to get what she wants. This hasn’t entirely gone away, although things have changed for the better. My wife, for example, doesn’t play this game with doctors. She doesn’t make subtle suggestions so they can think it was their idea, or play dumb. She treats them as equals, and that bothers some of the old school sorts. 


It doesn’t help that Faith’s mother is a master at the gender and class game. 


Faith could sense her mother making rapid judgments. Everyone had their place on an invisible ladder. It was easy to know that dukes were high above you, and chambermaids far below. But there were thousands of rungs, some at tiny differences in height, and Myrtle always wanted to determine everyone’s level to a fraction of an inch.  


On the other hand, Faith gets some benefit from her reputation as the good, if not particularly smart, girl. As part of her first big lie to the tree, she creates her own “haunting,” making it seem as if her father has come back as a ghost. This isn’t that hard, as it turns out, because people see what they want to believe. And, since nobody expects the demure girl to be behind stuff, she succeeds even better than she expects. 


Another tactic that is successful is her relationship with Paul. They do not like each other, but need each other, for different reasons. Ultimately, they become allies, if not exactly friends. In their initial hostile meeting, Paul is attempting to steal some hair off Faith’s father’s corpse, in order to fulfil a dare. Faith demands that he help her, in exchange for her sharing a bit from her locket. Her trump card is the fact that Paul’s dad seems to be wooing Faith’s mother, now a widow. 


“Help you?” Paul gave a huff of a laugh. “Why would I?”

“We cannot leave the island until my father is buried properly,” Faith declared coldly. “Your father is sending my mother flowers. The longer we stay, the closer they become. Do you want me for a sister?” 


As I said, nothing is subtle in this book, including Faith’s name. Her father’s central conflict, as it turns out, centers on his faith. As a minister, he pretty much has to believe, but his archaeological finds have caused him to question. If only he could find some proof of a literal Genesis, he wouldn’t doubt. In the process, of course, he not only loses his faith, but alienates his Faith, who had faith in him. Ultimately, it is Faith who is unafraid of the implications of Evolution, particularly since it implies that nothing is set in stone, that things can change for the better. She wants to, as she tells her mother, “help evolution.” 


“My dearest girl, I have not the faintest idea what you are talking about.”

Faith thought about the best way to rephrase her resolution.

“I want to be a bad example,” she said. 

“I see,” Myrtle stirred herself, ready to walk to the prow. “Well, my dear, I think you have made an excellent start.” 


And that is how the book ends. Which is a pretty dang good ending. 


As kind of a closing thought on this book, I felt that the best part of the book was the exploration of the nature of lies. As I mentioned, the successful lies are the ones we want to believe. We generally want to believe ill of people who are in some way outsiders, we want to believe our greed is noble, we want to believe that we can know some special truth that makes us better than others. We want to make black and white sense of the world, too, which is why the Reverend (and Trump voters today) essentially sells his soul, his reputation, and his integrity in order to - he hopes - find the key to vanquish his doubt. Along with Peter Enns, I personally think that people who do not doubt are problematic to themselves and others. Uncertainty, nuance, and doubt are not comfortable. Certainty allows us a pleasant feeling - and also the ability to judge those who believe differently. And, in a time when uncertainty and rapid change define the age, it becomes so tempting to toss integrity and empathy to the wind to regain that feeling of certainty. 


The author also does a good job of showing how living and propagating lies corrodes the soul. Faith barely escapes her father’s fate, and ends up having to search her soul over how easy it was for her to destroy people to save her father’s reputation. In the same way, her father and prior seekers of the Lie Tree destroyed themselves and their souls. Living in a lie is self-destructive, and never ends well. 


Right now, so many are carefully protecting and cultivating the lies they want to believe, rather than face the inconvenient truths that contradict their ideology and dogma. That’s why the ending is powerful. Faith is determined not to live a lie when it comes to who she is. She will live as a feminist, she will embrace science, and she will not limit her future to finding a wealthy man to support her. At that time in history, women like her kept fighting until they changed the world. Faith today would be thrilled to see women like my wife, self supporting, making a difference in the world, and refusing to act stupid to protect male feelings. 


Our current social upheaval is, at its core, about a fight to protect the lies and injustices of the past against positive social change that so many of us want to see. Alas, so many still want to believe the lies of female inferiority, white supremacy, and money as proof of moral value. (And that’s before we get to the issues involving science, for which an entire political party and massive propaganda machine have committed their efforts to propping up horrific lies.) These lies have caused tremendous damage to society, those who believe them, and those who propagate them. That is the battle of today for many of us: to unmask the lies, and live in the truth. 


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