Faith Sunderly, 14, narrates this novel for young adults about her family’s rapid departure in 1865 from London to Vane Island off the south coast of England, allegedly for an archeological excavation. She hasn’t been told why they had to leave so fast, but quickly learns through eavesdropping that her father, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned natural scientist, has just been exposed in the newspapers as “a fraud and a cheat.”
Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species had only been published for nine years, but “the world had shuddered, like a boat running aground.” Yet Faith’s father claimed to have found the fossilized bones of one of the ancient Nephilim (half-angels who were were offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” before the flood, according to Genesis 6:4). But it was subsequently discovered that these bones had been carefully fabricated.
Reverend Sunderly doesn’t seem concerned about the breaking scandal; instead, he is totally obsessed with a certain plant specimen that he hides in an old tower on the property of their new house on Vane. He forbids anyone to enter the tower. But Faith, our intrepid nosy Nancy Drew, sneaks in and finds a bizarre plant that shrinks from the light.
When her father asks her to help him in a clandestine operation, taking the specimen and hiding it in a nearby cave, Faith jumps at the chance. Later that night, however, the Reverend Sunderly is found dead, an apparent suicide. Faith is convinced he was murdered, and sets out to prove it.
First she examines his papers, and finds background about his mysterious plant specimen, the so-called Mendacity Tree. According to her father’s notes, the tree was a symbiote – “a species that survives by cooperating with another species.” If you “feed” the tree a lie, and then circulate the lie successfully, the tree will bear fruit. If you then eat of this fruit, you will gain the most secret knowledge that no one else knows, that could “unpeel the mysteries of the world.” The temptation posed by this is surely as great as that presented to Adam and Eve. (Apparently Reverend Sunderly forgot the lesson of that particular biblical story.)
Faith figures that she can use the power of the tree to find out who killed her father, and starts spreading lies, taking into consideration the notation in her father’s diary that the best lies are those “that others wish to believe.”
Faith’s interference unleashes a veritable Pandora’s box of troubles, and the pace of the action picks up enormously. After Faith’s enlistment of the help of a local boy, there are some Tom Sawyer/Becky Thatcher moments, as well as wild chase scenes, gun fights, and more attempted murders. Although Faith’s life is at risk, she is fearless and resourceful.
But what of the tree and the secrets it has shown?
Discussion: Faith is mostly unnoticed not only by the world-at-large but even by her family. Her father is cruel and asks only that she be “dutiful.” He even told Faith:
“You will never be anything but a burden, and a drain on my purse. Even when you marry, your dowry will gouge a hole in the family coffers.”
Nevertheless, Faith idolizes her father and craves his attention and recognition.
Her mother provides no succor at all; rather, she is obsessed with appearances, using Faith to take care of Faith’s six-year-old brother Howard, while she flirts with other men to soften the effect of her husband’s icy demeanor. Faith struggles with accepting the world’s definition of her as unworthy because of her “mousey” looks and her gender, and it has worn her down:
“She no longer fought to be praised or taken seriously. Now she was humbled, desperate to be permitted any part in interesting conversations. Even so, each time she pretended ignorance, she hated herself and her own desperation.”
The ongoing theme of the underappreciation of the female gender, the strictures imposed on them, and the unsavory options for advancement left open to them – especially in the 19th Century – has many interesting aspects that will occasion discussion. I love Faith’s characterization of her mother in light of their situation:
“My mother is not evil. . . . She is just a perfectly sensible snake, protecting her eggs and making her way in the world as best she can.”
But Faith herself quietly rebels against all of this. She is determined that she is going to be different, and that maybe someday, it can be different for all girls.
I also liked Faith’s thoughtful interpretation of the processes by which the Mendacity Tree worked. While there is a bit of magical realism in this story, Faith the scientist-in-the-making comes up with counter-narratives that go a long way to explain not only what happens in the story, but how the world works generally.
Evaluation: This book was the 2015 Costa Book of the Year. (The Costa Book Awards honor the most outstanding books of the year written by authors based in the UK and Ireland.) I thought it was very thought-provoking and well-written, but for me the first two-thirds of the book dragged. Nevertheless, I suspect this book will be well-loved by reviewers and book clubs for its challenge to gender roles, societal mores, and double standards, and for the dedication to scientific discovery, that has, over the years, repeatedly changed what everyone thought was known.
Published by in the U.S. by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams Books, a subsidiary of La Martinière Groupe, 2016