‘The Liar’s Dictionary’
By Eley Williams
If you had told me that I’d be seduced by a novel obsessed with the dictionary, I’d have thought you were nuts. I care about language and look up words when I don’t know their meaning. But getting hooked by a novel brimming with lexicographers and (real and fake) words?
Guess who’s eating her words? I’ve lost my heart to “The Liar’s Dictionary,” the first novel by British writer Eley Williams.
This is a queer book in so many ways. Williams, 33, who lives in London with her wife Nell Stevens, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her acclaimed, prize-winning short-story collection “Attrib. And Other Stories,”published in the U.K. in 2017, will be published in the U.S. this spring with the new title “When I Find I Cannot Kiss You.”
Williams, who did her Ph.D. research on bogus dictionary entries, plays with the meanings of words and queerness in her work. Though “The Liar’s Dictionary” is infused with puns and intellectual play, Williams isn’t a show-off or professorial. “The Liar’s Dictionary” is as much about love as it is about lexicography. It wears its words on its heart.
“The Liar’s Dictionary” is a delightfully queer novel because of its eccentricity. It’s in the form of 26 chapters arranged alphabetical order. The title of each chapter is a word. Some of the chapter titles (“A is for artful,” “F is for fornication” and “H is for humbug”) slide by easily. A few (“K is for kelemenopy,” “L is for legerdemain” and “Z is for zugzwang”) left me scratching my head, but intrigued. Only a humbug would complain about this “Alice in Wonderland” like befuddlement.
Williams has been aptly compared to Vladimir Nabokov and Ali Smith for her wordplay and switching back and forth between periods of time. “The Liar’s Dictionary” is the story of Mallory and Peter Winceworth, two lexicographers in London who work for “Swansby’s New Enclyclopaedic Dictionary.” (“Swansby’s is fictional.)
Mallory, in present-day London, is a young intern with at Swansby House (home of the “Swansby’s Dictionary”). Winceworth worked with Swansby’s in 1899. The dictionary was founded in 1850. In Winceworth’s day there were more than 100 lexicographers at Swansby’s. But many of the male lexicographers (at that time they were mostly men) were killed or wounded during World War I. Because of the war, Swansby’s Dictionary wasn’t finished. By the time Mallory arrives, she is the only employee. The only other person at Swansby’s is her boss David Swansby, a descendent of the dictionary’s founder. The latest edition of the unfinished dictionary was published in nine volumes in the 1930s.
“The Liar’s Dictionary,” fab queer novel that it is, is infused with whimsy and secrets. Mallory’s girlfriend Pip is “out-and-out out.” But Mallory isn’t comfortable yet with being openly queer. She thinks about words for closets. Mallory angers Pip by saying she’s her “flatmate.” She and Pip wonder “What about a word for not being out?”
Winceworth was hired by Swansby’s because he pretends that he has a lisp. The sympathy created by his fake impediment lands the job for him. As luck would have it, he is assigned to work on words beginning with the letter S. Winceworth fantasizes about living in a seaside cottage. He becomes so bored with his work that his mind wanders. After drinking way too much at a party, he spends the next day wondering why there’s no word to describe how wretched he feels. Finally, Winceworth finds his labor to be so dull that he creates fake words and sneaks them into Swansby’s Dictionary. He falls in love with Sophia, the fiancee of a co-worker whom he loathes. Along the way, he has a brawl with a pelican.
Part of Mallory’s job is to find and take out the fake words that Winceworth has inserted into the dictionary. Mallory’s finds are great fun. But things turn serious when a man threatens over the phone to bomb Swansby’s because the dictionary has changed the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage.
“The Liar’s Dictionary” is a fab tale for lovers of language and mystery.