The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann: 2020, 9781785152047)

Words can be like bricks or stone. They can be used to build Westminster Abbey and Notre-Dame, or they can be used to sculpt la Sagrada Família. Even though my interest in any church will only ever be of the architectural variety, when I emerged from the subway on an obscenely hot day one September and was faced with Gaudi’s masterpiece, I was moved. I knew I was seeing something unique and that every little corner would give me something new to delight in.  

And so a couple of years later I came across The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. I was excited to read it from the first page of the preface. Never mind the fact the writer teaches at my beloved alma mater – with the exception of Ali Smith, it had been a while since I’d read a ‘gaudiesque’ novel.

The title’s dictionary is the fictitious Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Mallory, a young graduate, has been hired as an intern to digitise the book. She also has to answer daily calls threatening to bomb the office because the definition of ‘marriage’ is being changed from “union between man and woman” to between ‘persons’. When David, her well-intentioned but somewhat pedantic boss, reveals she will be hunting made-up words that somehow sneaked their way into the dictionary, her assignment becomes a hypnotising Herculean task. The culprit for the ghost words in question is from another century. 1899 Peter Winceworth is a shy lexicographer who after a traumatic event decides to insert words of his own invention into the dictionary as a small revenge against his colleagues and as a means to perhaps attain anonymous immortality in print.

Illustration inspired by a scene from The Liar’s Dictionary. By Wilmar Santos

Mallory and Winceworth spend a lot of time thinking about language and its possibilities and shortcomings. Winceworth is always finding that there are no adequate words to define a thought or a feeling, and making up his own is a form of self-assertiveness and a creative release. Although she possesses a vast vocabulary, Mallory struggles to define her sexuality and identity as a gay woman who is madly in love with Pip, her live-in girlfriend of five years. With time, Mallory’s frustration with the unknown author of the false entries transforms into empathy and even a sense of camaraderie – words fail her when they matter most. It’s fun to see words that Winceworth was thinking of cooking up pop up in Mallory’s chapters, and the reader gets further insight into Winceworth’s state of mind through words that are not revealed to us directly but that Mallory finds later. Thinking about words is like a game that they use to escape their dreary work lives. Mallory notes that “many of us choose to switch off parts of our character, all of our character, just to get through the day.” This game switches them back on, in their minds at least.

The meditations on language make this book really special – Eley Williams conveys the FUN of words – are dictionaries boring and becoming obsolete, or can it be fascinating to get in a loop of etymology and ‘see alsos’? I don’t mind getting into etymology and reference loops, after all, as a non-native speaker, it’s not like I used to have much of a choice. The fear of selecting the wrong or inferior word (to say nothing of pronunciation and prepositions) is pretty much a natural state of being. But you learn to have fun with it. The English language is malleable (the versatility of the word ‘fuck’ alone could fill a book) and The Liar’s Dictionary radiates this from every page. If a word isn’t enough, find a better one. Mess around with it; think of its siblings, cousins, weird neighbours.

You don’t need to be a fan of language or dictionaries to enjoy this book – it’s playful and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The characters are eccentric and lovely. The dialogue is fearlessly faithful to every character and the plot and structure are seamless and subtle. For me the real genius and joy of this novel is the narrative voice. It’s the style; it’s the Gaudi; the Mina Loy. It’s the excitement you feel when you read Virginia Woolf, Ali Smith, Eley Williams.

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