The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams review – big ideas in a minor key

Further adventures in love and language from the author of Attrib., as two lexicographers a century apart juggle meaning and made-up words

Eley Williams won prizes and delighted readers with Attrib. and Other Stories (2017), a collection in which dazzled celebrations of love were inseparable from a head-over-heels courtship of language. The letters of the alphabet were stroked and tickled into life; the epigraph was Samuel Johnson’s wistful dictionary entry for Trolmydames: “Of this word I know not the meaning.” In fact trolmydames is the ballgame ninepins, but in the evolving games of her own writing Williams prefers to keep conclusive definitions on hold. Now her first novel offers further adventures in love and language, taking us deep into the world of lexicography and asking: can a dictionary lie? Would the addition of a little fiction to an authoritative work of reference be a desecration or the making of it?

There are two alternating and converging stories. Peter Winceworth is working on the “S” section of Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary in 1899. Ignored, taken for granted, suddenly but unrequitedly in love, he is a consciously unheroic figure quietly resigned to his lot – except for a small kindling of rebellion that emboldens him to insert new words of his own devising. Mallory is an intern at Swansby’s a century later, tasked with rooting out aberrant entries that seem to have crept in. She imagines the person who might have made up these words; he imagines the reader who will one day find them.

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