Cover Image: The Liar's Dictionary

The Liar's Dictionary

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Member Reviews

I enjoyed this debut from William's but I found it a struggle. I think it's because I like the thesaurus more. I like to play with words. I look forward to reading more of Williams' work in the future.
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Wow! The writing and control of language is mind-blowing! I loved it and was intrigued and drawn into this story from the beginning.
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In theory I should have loved this book but, disappointingly, it didn't work for me. I found the unrelenting cleverness of it tiresome after a while and I thought the plot was uninteresting. I can appreciate that others will enjoy the quirkiness but it wasn't to my taste.
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I was SO excited to read this as I loved EW short story collection Attrib. This is definitely a book for word buffs and I took my time to read the gorgeous, whip smart prose slowly. Profound about life, love and beautiful chaos. Highly recommended.
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I liked this book I just didn’t love it which is a shame as based on the description this should have been a passionate love affair.

I love the idea of “mountweazels” and I can totally see the point of using them. I can imagine the hilarity felt if someone has been copying your work and includes your fake word in fact if I was still in education I would be tempted to slip in some of my own to see if anyone spotted them.

Each chapter is named after a word in the dictionary from A – Z and the narrative voice alternates with each chapter so far so good – unfortunately the best bits of each chapter for me were the new words I learned and seeing how Winceworth would define his made up words. The characters just didn’t work for me, they felt kind of flat and I didn’t find any of them likeable. 

The situations the characters found themselves in also seemed farcical and read to me as if they had been added in to give the story more colour and personally I don’t think they were necessary they detracted from the central narratives rather than added to them.

Overall this was an interesting book to read, it was certainly educational but I felt it was trying too hard to be something it wasn’t. That said lots of other people really liked this so I would suggest read it and make up your own mind.

Who would like this? I would recommend this to those who like their reading to be erudite, who appreciate learning new words and who don’t need their characters to be likeable.
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We ended up putting this one in our Christmas Catalogue! 

"I really, really enjoyed this book, and I have absolutely no idea why. It’s absolutely not my usual thing - far too literary, nowhere near enough plot. Except there was plenty of plot, and playfulness, and a kind of reverence and lack of reverence for words and language which I recognised. It was intensely weird in a very personally relatable way. Unfortunately I suspect my weird adoration of the absurdity of pelicans may have been dampened somewhat." - from Goodreads
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Not only is the writing an ode to the love of language but great characters and plot to boot. This will be on my very short 'to re-read' list.
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Delightful comic novel centred around false entries in dictionaries, by one of our most exciting writers working today. I recommended it in Five Books' 'notable new novels of summer 2020'. I also invited her to do an interview with us, although in the end she didn't have time.
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Mallory is an intern at lesser-known dictionary publisher Swansby’s. The firm are attempting to digitise their books, but before they can, Mallory has to root out what are known as ‘mountweasels’ – made-up words originally placed into the dictionary to protect copyright, but in this case added via for more personal reasons.
	As Mallory continues her literary detective work, she begins to piece together clues of the person who had inserted these fake words a century earlier. But at the same time, she is facing more present-day problems – increasingly threatening phone calls by someone angry at the dictionary’s rewriting of different terms to reflect modern mores.
Eley Williams’ debut short story collection, Attrib and Other Stories, won the James Tait Black Prize with its playful interest in words and language and a writing style that was funny, quirky and precise in equal measures. The Liar’s Dictionary finds Williams switching from short stories to novels, but still displaying all the same hallmarks of linguistic intrigue, acute observation and wry humour. 

(LIving Magazines, July 2020)
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Okay, I didn't know what to expect when picking this book from Netgalley, however, whilst it was a dry novel, there were some entertaining parts.  Their is a dual narrative throughout, one set in the present, the other the distant past, which leads to a very different progression for each protagonist.  For me though, whilst I enjoyed that aspect, I did not enjoy how much linguistic exposition there was - it felt a little like being clubbed round the head with the very dictionary the characters were editing!  So, all in all, a fun novel but not for those who don't like reading about words.  Oh, the irony.
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Thanks to Google, I can’t remember when I last picked up a dictionary. This, despite what its name suggests, is NOT a dictionary. It is, in fact, an amusing tale of the creation of one.

If there’s anything you love about the English language, this book is guaranteed to charm you. Chapters are named alphabetically using some complex words. By chapter two, when Winceworth lists 47 words to describe the colour orange, you realise you are well on your way to falling head over heels in love with this book.

Gloriously funny with clever word-play, this is an inimitably ingenious piece of fiction you’d hate to miss.

This ARC courtesy of NetGalley and Cornerstone.
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This book was a bit of a struggle for me and it had so much potential. We cross two time periods, when a dictionary is first being written to when many year’s later it’s being edited. There are two protagonists from the two different eras, Peter who is so self conscious that he fakes a lisp so people underestimate him and Mallory who can’t admit who she is either. 

This book had promise. It’s about books and language. It’s about mountweazels and cats. And yet absolutely nothing happens in it. I ended the book disappointed and for me, whilst words are important, having so many listed or obscure words made it difficult to flow. 

Unfortunately a bit of a miss for me.
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Most debut novels commonly focus on autobiographical experience and while I know nothing about Eley Williams' background I wouldn't be surprised if this gifted author grew up between the covers of a giant dictionary. “The Liar's Dictionary” is quite literally the story of two lexicographers who both work for Swansby's New Encyclopedic Dictionary but their lives are separated by a century. While this might not sound like the most thrilling basis for a story, there's such charm, humour, warmth and surprisingly dramatic turns to this tale that I felt enthralled by this novel. 

In alternating alphabetically-ordered chapters, we're told the stories of Winceworth, an introverted lovelorn man in 1899 who fakes having a lisp, and Mallory, an introverted very-in-love woman in the present day who is nervous about introducing her girlfriend to people as more than a flatmate. Their intensely focused endeavour is to precisely research and define every word, but language is such an unwieldy beast this task seems insurmountable and never ending. Additionally, Mallory is newly charged with hunting down the mountweazels (made-up words) in their dictionary. Where did these false words come from and why were they added? Adding to this mystery are a series of threatening phone calls Mallory receives and a strange woman with whom Winceworth becomes infatuated. These elements form a quietly mesmerising tale that's also a love letter to the English language.

Something I really appreciated about this novel was its frank depiction of a young person struggling to make a living with a certain speciality. As an intern, Mallory can barely support herself. Swansby's is an esteemed institution but given modern technology Mallory is aware of the perfunctory nature of her job in a dilapidated building with outdated facilities: “To use a computer in Swansby House was to hate the sight of a computer.” It's moving how Williams writes about the contrast between the upkeep of the building and the amount of staff at the end of the 19th century in contrast to what it's been reduced to in the 21st century. 

Mallory feels like a character who was born in the wrong era, but she's also aware that this is historically a better time to be a homosexual: “it is a good time to be out. I know that. It's nice out. That's what I know to be true and yet and yet... It shouldn't define me. It definitely should.” This is one of the many complex ways this novel looks at the question of definitions and how there are deeper implications which are attached to many words. Mallory's girlfriend is unashamedly open about her sexuality in a way Mallory isn't. It's interesting how these ambiguous feelings have been expressed before in Wiliams' short story 'Smote' from her collection “Attrib”. I appreciate how this shows that being gay isn't simple no matter how progressive society becomes. 

Williams' revels in language: its etymology and evolution, the way it is commonly used, its many ambiguities and the gaps where there should be certain words for an experience or sensation. There are endless examples in this novel of innovative new words the author has created or infrequently-used beautiful words that she's unearthed. She also frequently points out how words come with so many connotations. For example she writes: “A freakish weed is just a flower that has not asked permission.” There are so many words and terms whose social meaning say more than their definition, but if you look at them from a different perspective their meaning can entirely change. This feels to me to be the ultimate message of the novel. Just like the innumerable words in our language, our unique personalities can never be precisely defined.
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Very well written, and thematically mature and interesting. The writing style was a bit too twee and pretentious for my personal taste - I prefer prose that can allow me to forget that a Writer is Writing. But objectively speaking, there is very strong stuff on display here.
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I requested this book because I thought the idea of playing on words sounded intriguing. Once I started it, I realised I did not have the patience to note the subtle undertones of the words being discussed, both the real and the made-up. This part did hinder my enjoyment of the book, but I slowly worked my way through it and did find other things to like about it.
It is a dual timeline, and the past does not have a very heavy bearing on the present. It is more like a slight interference. This basically meant I treated both as parallel individual stories except for when there were some repercussions felt in the present. Our protagonists (both past and current) work at a publishing house that published a dictionary. It was fascinating to see how the construction of such a thing would work, and for anyone even remotely interested in dictionaries, this will be even more enthralling. We have a man bored with his job, leading a life with a significant lie when he decides to throw more into circulation. His personal life gets pretty complicated by the time the narrative ends. In our current timeline, we have Mallory who is not so bored with the minimal work she now has to do with the dictionary, she is hiding part of herself from the world at large, and individually, her story was cute. The conversations she has with her partner are also pretty entertaining. It is not a fast-paced book but does have some unique content.
I received an ARC thanks to NetGalley and the publishers, but the review is entirely based on my own reading experience.
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If you love words, learning about the meaning behind them, and how they end up being used, you will love this book. Beautiful, whimsical, and truly unique, there is so much to be found in this story, and so much to be found in the words used to tell it.
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Split between the nineteenth century and present day, this is a delightfully exuberant, playful novel that is difficult to categorise or briefly summarise. Professor Gerolf Swansby embarked upon an ambitious project to produce his own comprehensive English language dictionary and encyclopaedia and set up premises in St James’s Square, London towards the end of the nineteenth century. Peter Winceworth, a junior lexicographer in the late 1890s works in Swansby’s large Scrivenery, tasked with defining words that begin with the letter ‘S’, which is a bit of joke upon him as he affects a lisp, making pronunciation a challenge in the office.  Mundane office life with his fellow lexicographers bores Winceworth to distraction and he feels side-lined and undervalued in his work. He thus decides to invent words, with meanings and definitions that are lacking in the English language. Affairs become more interesting when he meets Sophia, the engaging female companion of the office’s louche and wealthy Fresham, who seems to be there solely for his wealth and contacts.
	In the present day, David Swansby, is the sole surviving relative and the project still slowly continues uncompleted. This part is narrated in the first person by the twenty-something female Mallory, who is the only employee, a seemingly permanent intern. When the David Swansby discovers during the long drawn out digitalisation process that some of the words in Swansby’s dictionary have indeed been invented, Mallory is given the tasks of going through all the many thousands of original card index entries to weed out the rogue words, in what was Winceworth’s recognisable handwriting. Thus both Winceworth and Mallory are joined over the years. Definitely a story for logophiles and historical fiction devotees. It is decidedly clever, indeed literary, but it is a fascinating read and strangely amusing and eccentric. The oddest, but one of the best novels read so far in 2020.
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The Liar’s Dictionary is the first novel by British author, Eley Williams. In the final years of the nineteenth century, Peter Winceworth relieves the boredom of his work as a lexicographer on Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary by fabricating his own words and definitions for things he believes need one: certain feelings, sensations, emotions, acts, concepts, qualities that are, heretofore, not succinctly expressed. 

Peter isn’t nearly as passionate about his work as some of his colleagues, and they tend to ignore him, if not treat him with contempt. But then someone comes along who seems to hear him, and within forty-eight hours, events have driven him to insert his words, neatly written on the regulation blue index cards, into the pigeonholes that hold the dictionary’s entries. 

Over a hundred years later, David Swansby shares what he believes to be a potentially explosive secret with his young intern, Mallory. When he’s not distracted by playing historical online chess games, he is preparing the only published edition of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1930, incomplete due to loss of lexicographers to World War One) for digitisation, so it can be made available free online. 

Editors often add what is known as a mountweazel to protect copyright, but what David has stumbled across is clearly not that: there are too many of them. He sets Mallory the task, in between answering bomb-threat phone calls, of tracking them down from the original blue index cards, because the dictionary, online, in its current form, would be a laughing stock. 

Although winnowing out the false words is tedious, it’s certainly more interesting work than what she’s been doing so far: who can fail to be fascinated by the mind that creates words like: “cassiculation (n.), sensation of walking into spider silk, diaphanous unseen webs, etc” and “asinidorose (n.), to emit the smell of a burning donkey” and “agrupt (adj.), irritation caused by having a dénouement ruined”. 

Mallory’s flatmate (and lover, though she’s still vacillating about going public), Pip is concerned about the bomb threats, so comes to Swansby House. She observes “‘Once you start knowing there are made-up things in here, this whole dictionary is just a – I don’t know what to call it…. An index of paranoia.” It’s a good thing Pip has chosen to help…

The twin narratives are presented in alternating chapters, each titled with a letter and pertinent word (F is for fabrication), forming a story that likely goes where the reader will not be expecting. Less of the wordy preface and more of the fabricated words would have improved the overall experience. This is a novel that will probably appeal to those of a linguistic bent, but it doesn’t quite deliver emotionally. Eley Williams is an author to watch. 
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK.
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Very witty writing, and hugely enjoyable to read! The plot divided between the two protagonists, one in the 21st century, the other in Victorian times, is interesting, if not that focussed. The mountweazels are a great subject.
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Soon after I started this novel I realized that I am probably not the intended audience. I’ve never been the dictionary consultant type. My best friend and high school desk mate was. She used to write her literature essays with the Romanian dictionary on the table, researching the most sophisticated words and phrases to express her ideas. Me, I always preferred the more direct approach. Although I am more of a numbers girl, I still got top marks at literature but mostly for being clear and concise. When my friend wrote 5-6 pages essays I wrote 2 or 3. As you can see, although I love reading, including literary fiction, I am not a fan of pompous words, to write or read, doesn’t matter. So, the value of this otherwise fine and innovative novel is a bit lost to me. However, if you are like my friend, you might get it more.

The writing is not pretentious as one could expect from a book about words, it is actually playful. However for me it felt like watching a group of people exchanging inside jokes and feeling on the outside. The plot did not feel too exciting to me and I was bored by the characters as well. I gave it 3* because I think the book might a lot more for other people.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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