The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

indexCosta Book Prize 2015

Shortlisted for YA Book Prize 2016

Of course I’m going to write about The Lie Tree – the moment I found out this book had won the Costa Book Prize, I was on to the other Piranhas shouting ‘Mine, Mine, Mine!” Fortunately the four of us are always ready to give space for each other’s enthusiasms (or add our own take, as with last week’s two Carry On reviews here and here).

Why am I so keen to review this book? Well first, the Costa. THE COSTA. It’s one of Britain’s most valuable book prizes, five winners of five separate categories, novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children’s, all pitted against each other for an overall winner. An impossible competition, you’d think. How do you judge a poetry book against a biography? How do you judge a children’s book against any of them? Before The Lie Tree won this year, only one other children’s book has been overall winner, Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass in 2001. It’s important because it should draw people’s attention to children’s books, readers who wouldn’t ordinarily think of reading a children’s book because if it’s written with children in mind they couldn’t possible enjoy it, could they?, parent book buyers who can’t see beyond the obvious books on display tables and supermarket shelves by the same authors yet again… The world of children’s books is rich and diverse and contains all manner of glorious action and insight that’s there for everyone.

So… enough of the hymn to the glory of children’s books (though obvs there’s never actually enough to be said about this subject, as you can read here here with regard to the #coverkidsbooks campaign). But what about The Lie Tree?

Set in Victorian times, Faith moves to a small island with her family, so that her father, a natural scientist, can take part in an excavation. But unsettling rumours about the authenticity her father’s work follow them to the island, and when her father is found dead, Faith is convinced he’s been murdered. Hidden amongst his belongings, Faith uncovers the secrets of a strange tree that seems to feed off lies…

A sense of the Victorian permeates this book. It’s not just the marvellous attention to detail – Faith’s training corset and the importance of her skirt length; the rituals around death; the desperate attempt to ‘cure’ her brother’s left-handedness – but also the story itself. It’s a proper old-fashioned adventure, with twists and mistaken identities and secret places and goodies and baddies and mortal danger aplenty. In that, it edges nearer to the stuff of books considered Middle Grade than the harsher stuff of Young Adult. Where it tips over into YA is in the murder itself, which is as real and devastating as it should be, and Faith’s inner life, her desire for knowledge frustrated by her sex and her moral dilemma over the web of deceit she becomes involved in.

This would be a lovely book to read aloud or hear as an audiobook. The language sings, beautiful, evocative, but unobtrusive:

“It was a house of the dead now. All the curtains were drawn. Dark cloth was draped over every mirror, like a dull lid drooped over every eye.”

“There came into her head a deep soul-fear that she and her pursuers were no longer in the cave but in a wall-less, endless jungle of the Tree, a private hell where they would hunt each other for eternity.”

The Lie Tree is a keeper, a book to read and to give, now and for years to come. A worthy Costa winner and a book that can absolutely stand up to the adage that the best children’s books appeal to adults too.

Claire Watts

piranha stars green 5

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.

Want more YA book stuff?

The February edition of the Paisley Piranha YA newsletter Book Bites has an interview with Sarah Govett, along with the chance to win a signed copy of The Territory. Sign up now .

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