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Words, words, words – ‘The Liar’s Dictionary’

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I love words.

The English language is a rich tapestry, one filled with weird lexicography and etymological dead ends. There are just so many words, with more coming into being every day. And of course, the reference of choice for any lexophile worth their salt is the dictionary.

But what if you found out that you couldn’t trust it?

In “The Liar’s Dictionary” (Doubleday, $26.95), the debut novel by Eley Williams, we find out. Unfolding in two distinct storylines – one past, one present – the book explores what it means to trust wholly in something that ultimately proves unreliable, either through one’s own actions or the actions of another. It is also a celebration of language and the people who devote their lives to studying and recording its many iterations.

All that and it’s wildly funny as well. Plus, you might learn something. For instance, did you know this word?

Mountweazel (n): the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and books of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

I’d never heard it before, but it plays a vital role in the action of this delightful book.

In the Victorian era, Peter Winceworth is a lexicographer working as part of the team assembling the Swansby’s Encylopaedic Dictionary. He’s an odd sort, viewed by his peers with a combination of contempt and bemusement. Rather than voice his own disdain in return, he retreats into his work, taking advantage of his position by inserting made-up words – often based on his co-workers and his feelings toward them – into the in-process reference.

In the present day, a young woman named Mallory is the sole remaining employee of the once-mighty Swansby’s empire. Still technically an intern, she has been tasked with digitizing the notoriously incomplete dictionary. She’s also the one answering the phones every time the same anonymous caller calls to issue threats. It’s not a great job, but it’s one for which Mallory has an odd sort of affection.

Back and forth we go between the two narratives. We watch as Winceworth finds himself increasingly embroiled in a not-quite-rivalry with one of his more boisterous co-workers, even as he continues to introduce his false words into the dictionary. Meanwhile, Mallory’s boss discovers that his family’s dictionary is riddled with those same falsities and tasks Mallory with weeding them all out via cross-referencing the ancient Swansby files.

Both Winceworth and Mallory are looking for something that they can’t quite articulate, something beyond their current lot. And their paths are strewn with the various and sundry ups and downs of life, leaving them to find ways to navigate both the ridiculous and the sublime – sometimes at the same time.

Too often, a book that uses multiple perspectives lends too much weight to one narrative thread at the expense of others. The danger here, with stories that take place in different time periods, is that the past is the active and the present is the reactive. “A Liar’s Dictionary” finds the balance, giving equal heft to its paired storylines. The journeys of Peter and Mallory are treated equitably, allowing each story to grow.

What’s great here is that I would have happily read either of these stories on its own; each is more than rich enough to carry that narrative weight. Both would have been a lovely individual read, but the impact of the juxtaposition of the two elevates the overall experience. The back-and-forth between the two tales could have been jarring, but instead, we get a smooth experience, sliding easily from present to past and back again with seemingly little effort.

Now, there’s a risk that comes with writing a book driven by this subject matter. When words are the focus of the narrative, one can’t help but take note of the relative quality of the writing used to tell the story. Williams proves up to the challenge, however, displaying an exceptional level prosaic craftsmanship. Of course, while this is her debut novel, Williams has already established herself as a rising star in the world of short fiction, so her gift for descriptions both vivid and compact comes as no surprise.

(Maybe the coolest part of it all is the fact that the entire book is built on the foundation of that single word: mountweazel. I’d be grateful to Williams just for introducing it into my vocabulary, leaving aside the book itself. Of course, the fact that the book is excellent is so much the better.)

“A Liar’s Dictionary” was the first book with a 2021 publication date that I read this year. I can only hope that it is indicative of the quality of work that I will experience going forward, because it is sharply smart, dryly funny and wonderfully written. If you love words and the mysteries behind them, then you’ll likely enjoy this book as much as I did.

Last modified on Tuesday, 19 January 2021 11:20

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