I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!
I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder, of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.
And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!
Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father, Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.
We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.
The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.
And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists, photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.
Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing. Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!
The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.
Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!
The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.
There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.
It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.