This is the second book that I have read in the Carnegie Shortlist for 2016. Hmmm, what to say about this book? It has been heavily publicised by Waterstones and I was looking forward to reading it. It has a suitably spooky cover and the blurb describes a murder mystery with a little bit of weirdness thrown in in the guise of this strange tree that feeds on lies. The main character is a young girl called Faith who is traveling to the island of Vane with her father, the eminent Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, her mother Myrtle, her brother Howard and her Uncle Miles. Her father seems to be some sort of archaeologist as well as a Reverend and they are travelling to Vane to be involved in a dig, which is being led by a man called Lambent. It soon becomes clear that Uncle Miles has persuaded the Sunderly’s to come to Vane to escape a growing scandal involving the Reverend and a fossil that he had discovered. It’s not really clear what time the book is set in but from the way that the women are treated and the general feel of it, I assume it is set in Victorian England. Women are treated quite badly in this book, as if we have limited intelligence and can’t really understand what’s going on; flirty Myrtle is a little cringey. Faith is very interested in her fathers work but is not allowed to know anything about it; he also seems to be extremely grumpy and is obsessed with a specimen that he has brought with him and then asks Faith to help him hide in a cave. To me, this felt like the most important part of the book but it took ages to get there.
The Reverend, as you might guess, comes to a sticky end and Myrtle (the flirty mother) tries to get him buried ASAP so that there is no hint of a suicide rumour (he is found hanging from a tree). There is a big scene at the graveyard and the burial is stopped, so Faith decides the only thing to do is investigate her father’s death, try and figure out what this tree thing is all about and get some revenge at the same time. She pretends that her father is haunting the house and scares the bejesus out of one of the housemaids (who isn’t very nice anyway so that’s ok) and starts studying the tree. She then persuades a boy who takes pictures of dead people (it was a thing in Victorian times…) to help her.
It is a well written and well put together book but I found it really difficult to get in to. I didn’t really warm to any of the characters and I wasn’t really bothered if she found who her father’s murderer was because I didn’t really like him. He was horrible to her and had obviously become obsessed with the tree to the point where nothing else mattered; including his reputation, which then a big knock on effect on his family. I was also expecting some romance between Faith and Paul Clay which didn’t really happen. Some great prose though especially descriptive passages – ‘she felt like the murderess of time’ when she stopped the clocks after her father has died, is a great example.
It also made me glad that I didn’t live in Victorian times because women had no rights whatsoever and were basically just burden on their family. The Reverend is telling Faith off about sneaking through his papers and tells her ‘all that a daughter can do….. in recompense for the debt she cannot pay, is to hold steadfastly to the path of duty, gratitude and humility. That is the very least a father can expect’ because all women could do was marry to relieve the financial burden on their family. Nice eh?