A renowned naturalist Reverend Erasmus Sunderly from London comes to a small island called Vane with his family, as a rector. In the beginning of the story the reader is told that the archaeologist has come to escape a big scandal that has broken about his work. His image as a reputed scientist has been tarnished but so far his reputation hasn’t followed him to the island.
A cave of some big archaeological importance is being dug at the island and a team of scientists responsible for the taking and discovery has invited the reputed archaeologist from London.
The family is greeted by a ghostly island totally away from civilisation where it is constantly raining and the skies are always dark and grey.
The level and has a daughter named Faith Sunderly, around 13 or 14, a wife named Myrtle Sunderly and a six-year-old brother named Howard Sunderly. The family is also accompanied by Myrtle’s brother, Miles, who is seems, has been instrumental in bringing the family to the island for the sake of rehabilitation.
The story is set in the mid-1800s when different discoveries about human evolution were coming out and age-old religious beliefs are being dismantled layer after layer and even the scientist community is going through an existential turmoil regarding exactly how life on Earth came into existence.
Faith knows that something terrible has gone wrong with her father but her mother totally ignores her and treats her like a juvenile nanny for her son and her father is too domineering to be approached regarding matters of controversy. Often she takes her own initiatives to seek out answers when none are provided directly. She not just admires her father, she also idolizes him for his scientific work despite the humiliating ill-treatment she receives at his hands.
She secretly goes through the notes her father constantly makes. She has read almost all of his books. She knows about animals, plants, and scientific terms, chemicals, languages, weather phenomena and basically every piece of information she comes across, as much as any other less trained scientist would know. She can converse with his father’s colleagues using the jargon, often surprising them because women at that time are known to be of an inferior intellectual ability. No woman is expected to rise beyond her household duties. Trying to enter the realm of men is almost sacrilege. She knows that her father knows about her abilities. She is constantly seeking his approval, his recognition and her acceptance but gets none.
In a couple of days when the newspapers reach the island the humiliation and the isolation of the family starts. People who were ready to endure the ill-tempered and haughty reverend sneer openly at him. The scientific community of the island refuses to be associated with him lest their work to comes to be doubted.
On the morning when the news of the scandal reaches the island, unaware of the changing attitudes in the island, the reverend accuses one of his domestic helps of meddling with his papers, humiliates her in unmitigated terms, and dismisses her. It’s Faith who has been going through his father’s papers, not the servant girl, and Faith feels terrible that the girl is being punished for nothing she has done. She goes to her father and confesses of her crime. She tells him how often she reads his notes and how she has learned reading books in his library.
Her father reprimands her in no uncertain terms. He tells her that she has an inferior mind because she is a female, and no matter how hard she tries, she can never equal even the intelligence of her six-year-old brother. She is a burden on him and she is always going to remain a burden.
Faith is totally heartbroken. She can’t believe what sort of father she has.
After severely reprimanding her, he makes her a partner in his intrigue. From London they have brought a strange plant. This plant is always covered. It is always kept in darkness. The reverend asks her to assist him while he takes a boat into the sea and goes inside a cave in the darkness of the night. She doesn’t know at that time what he is up to. He leaves her at the boat, goes deep inside the cave with the plant, and when he comes back, the plant is not with him.
They both come back. He leaves her at the door, tells her that he needs to take care of a matter, and vanishes into the darkness. She sees that he has a revolver. The next day he is found dead.
Anticipating trouble, Myrtle tries to convince the island doctor who is also a coroner, that he husband hasn’t committed suicide due to the scandal, it was an accident. Deep down she believes her husband has taken the ultimate plunge because he never cared for the family, and just cared about himself and his reputation.
Something tells Faith that her father hasn’t committed suicide; he has been murdered.
The island community doesn’t want him buried in the common cemetery because suicide is a sin. Since the reverend’s family believes that he didn’t commit suicide, an inquest is ordered and it is decided that until the inquest happens, the body is going to remain unburied. The family is subjected to further humiliation.
Due to excessive attachment to her father’s work, Faith gathers all the notebooks and diaries of her father and hides them in her room.
While reading his father’s personal diary, she reads a note in which his father has written something about the Mendacity tree that he had come across in China and how the tree came into his possession. Unlike other trees, this tree cannot survive under sun and it has to be fed lies. Tell the tree a lie, spread the lie as much as possible and the tree gives a fruit. If you eat that fruit, the tree reveals a secret you want to know. The more lies you feed to the tree, the more it grows, and for the every lie you tell and spread, and the tree gives you a fruit.
Faith decides to use the tree to find his father’s murderers. She has to prove that her father was murdered, because on this revelation depends the survival of her family.
But things are not as simple as they seem. The Mendacity tree, the lie try, has its own mind, and so do a few individuals on the island who also know about the tree and its powers.
The Lie Tree is a gripping story, a mix of a murder story and a supernatural story. I started reading I thinking I was reading a horror story set in the 18th century. It isn’t an out and out horror story, but it is also not an out and out whodunnit story. It’s a mix of both. You can read it for a good, entertaining reading experience. I can certainly read another book from Frances Hardinge.
Originally published on Writing Cave.