Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Lie Tree - Frances Hardinge

“The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth. The islands just visible through the mist also looked like teeth, Faith decided. Not fine, clean Dover teeth, but jaded, broken teeth, jutting crookedly amid the wash of the choppy grey sea. The mailboat chugged its dogged way through the waves, greasing the sky with smoke”

The first paragraph of The Lie Tree gives you all you need to know about this magnificent book. First, the similes and metaphors are powerfully evocative. You can feel the dreadful cadence of that ship and the tension and anxiety induced by that vista of harsh, imposing islands in the distance. Read it out loud too – feel how the sentences work; ‘jutting crookedly’ is perfect isn’t it? As always then with a Hardinge novel we know reading will be intensely pleasurable because the writing is so good. You can’t help but smile at the language and the figures of speech at the same time as they generate significance and strangeness and propel the narrative onwards. The text draws attention to itself but never gets in the way of telling the story.

Regular readers of Hardinge might also suspect something else is afoot: you’d be right. This is a gothic tale full of peril and suspense – something new in the Hardinge catalogue. Cuckoo Song was horribly scary for its first third but became an adventure for the rest of the book. The Lie Tree, whilst containing significant components of adventure and mystery, is full of preternatural dread and uncanny menace and never lets its grip on you loosen. You feel a knot of tension in your stomach throughout.
The Lie TreeThe book is set on a small island in the English Channel in the latter half of the nineteenth century (around 1869). Teenager Faith has travelled with her younger brother, mother, father and uncle, ostensibly so that her father – a Reverend and a natural scientist, can provide expertise for an archaeological dig. But there are intimations that the family are fleeing from intrigue and the shame of scandal. Furthermore it’s clear that Faith is dissatisfied, not just with her stern father and manipulative mother but with the expectations placed on her to be placid and ladylike; instead she is “full of questions, coiling and writhing like [a] snake”.

 The novel has a lot to say about the limitations of girl’s and women’s lives in Victorian England. Faith has “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” but the novel charts her progress to greater self-knowledge (and knowledge about the world) and reveals the difficulties and secrets at the heart of many women’s lives. It is historically fascinating, joyfully liberating whilst also, I think, despite all the improvements in women’s lives, sharply and powerfully relevant for today.

One of the best things about The Lie Tree is its richness and the feeling that you are solidly grounded in a dense, yet mysterious, forest of intertextuality.  Younger readers will be reminded of myths, fairytales and possibly some bible stories. Older readers will struggle not to think of Daphne du Maurier and all manner of nineteenth century classics, especially Wilkie Collins. There is throughout a delectable use of language to evoke period and mood; “A half-human face with a sloping brow glowered with hostile stupefaction” provides the heat-trace of Dickens or Poe whilst retaining clarity and a sense of danger.

I could quote it all day to be honest – my kindle is marked every page or so by figures of speech, details that add layers and depth or character, and frequent glimmers of the uncanny or glimpses of the darkness: “People were animals, and animals were nothing but teeth. You bit first, and you bit often. That was the only way to survive”.  It’s a novel full of ideas and intelligence but don’t think for a second that Hardinge skimps on plot. There is never a dull interlude and the narrative picks up its pace thrillingly before hurtling, breathlessly, to its denouement, shooting off surprises and revelations as it goes.

Doubts? Not really. Marcus Sedgwick is probably the UK’s best purveyor of gothic – I’m a big fan of My Swordhand is Singing for instance, but The Lie Tree is on a whole different planet of brilliant. The novel raises some good questions for debate however. There were moments when I wondered if the tensions and mysteries in the plot were perhaps overly dependent on Faith’s (mis)understanding of events. It is a difficult and delicate balance to preserve so this is being very picky indeed. Also, though Hardinge is as always, deeply aware of class and power in social relationships, it was slightly unusual for a Hardinge protagonist to be middle class and for the actions of many of the novel’s working class characters to be less sympathetic than usual. Finally I wonder if some of Hardinge’s fantasies are more complex and richly metaphorical? These are genuine questions – only answerable after a second reading and a good discussion. In the mean time I will be eagerly awaiting publication date so I can get copies in the library and buy copies for friends. The Lie Tree is brilliant; I finished it delirious and deeply happy.

This is how I finished my review of Cuckoo Song last year:

What is more astonishing, and downright weird, is that Hardinge hasn’t picked up an award or three along the way and isn’t being heralded up and down the land as a national treasure.
I’m glad to say that that Cuckoo Song has made two shortlists and a long list in the last month: the BSFA Award shortlist, the James Herbert  Award shortlist and the Carnegie longlist. Furthermore she is also a judge for this year’s Kitschies. Hopefully the times they are a changing.

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