The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
D is for delightful (adj.). The debut novel of young writer Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary, could simultaneously be a definition of intricate creativity and simple joy. The narrative has two parallel storylines: 1899 Victorian London, where lexicographer Peter Winceworth participates in the creation of a new encyclopaedic dictionary at Swansby House; and the present day in the same place, where intern Mallory continues to work with the as-yet-unfinished first edition. Mallory examines handwritten archives looking for mountweazels – non-existent words usually used to protect dictionaries from plagiarism – because more than a century ago, someone decided to sabotage Swansby’s Dictionary by including in it an unknown number of fictional words.
“No man is an island, no dictionary a fixed star”: the characters are faced with the colossal and unruly phenomenon that is language. It’s a living, constantly changing system that cannot be captured inside a book. Therefore, along with a love triangle, the novel contains a semiotic trio, once described by Charles Sanders Peirce, of sign, object and interpretant. Williams shows us the unique linguistic worldview of her protagonists and how they create their own neologisms. The development of the storyline reveals that the mountweazels found by Mallory are reflections of Winceworth’s life experience: echoing the literary tradition begun by Horace’s Exegi Monumentum, he wanted to create a legacy by including in the dictionary his own words – thanks to them, “he would live forever”.
The novel also raises the topic of homosexuality and how it is perceived in modern society. After the Swansby’s Dictionary updates the old definition of marriage from a “union between man and woman” to a “union between persons”, the editorial office begins to receive anonymous threatening calls. Some of the descriptions of the relationship between Mallory and her girlfriend are touching and full of life, although our protagonist is seemingly reluctant to publicly express her sexuality.
The Liar’s Dictionary is full of complex vocabulary and at the start, the reader will have to hack through the jungle of unusual definitions, but as soon as the plot begins to gather pace, the author’s charming humour and the captivating atmosphere of the novel’s world come into play. Furthermore, dictionary stylisation is organically embedded in the narrative, becoming an experimental descriptive tool. The text is full of symbols and literary references that make it deep and intriguing. The initial complexity gradually develops into lightness and the ending of the novel leaves the reader with a pleasant sense of satisfaction.
Photo: Sophie Davidson
The Liar’s Dictionary is published by William Heinemann at the hardback price of £14.99 and is available in the UK on 16th July 2020. For further information visit here.