Cover Image: The Liar's Dictionary

The Liar's Dictionary

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Member Reviews

Eley Williams has been on my radar for her short story collection, Attrib., which I haven’t read yet so I was delighted to be given the opportunity to read her debut novel, The Liars’ Dictionary via Netgalley.  

Williams is a confident and intelligent writer and this is a story about language and imagination, about limits of language to express emotions and experiences. It is set around a failed encyclopaedic dictionary, Swansby’s where Peter Winceworth was one of the original lexicographers at the turn of 20th century and Mallory, in the present day is working on rooting out mountweazels - meaningless, fake, imaginary words it contains as the relic dictionary is being digitised.  

This is a book for wordsmiths and word-lovers, it is witty and playful. Sadly, I found it just too whimsical and wished there was more of a plot. Still, an accomplished debut and I’d be interested in seeing what Williams does next.

My thanks to Random House, Cornerstone and Netgalley for the ARC.
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I have soft spot both for books about books and, books where two interlinked stories play out across time, so Eley Williams' debut novel immediately appealed to me. Alternating between the worlds of Peter Winceworth in the late 1800's  and Mallory in the present day England the book is about dictionary words. The connecting tissue is the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. 

Winceworth is there at the start: he is researching entries for the letter ‘S’ of the planned dictionary. He is unfulfilled with his life and increasingly frustrated and annoyed by his co-workers, in particular Frasham who has returned from a recent trip with a new bride Sophia. In need of a release he decides to start adding multiple fictitious entries [ agrupt (n. and adj.), irritation caused by having the denouement ruined] into the dictionary.

In the present day, we discover the dictionary is most famous for never having been completed. The current surviving owner is planning to digitise the text to save it for posterity. However, before he does he want to track down and expunge any mountweazels (made up words), and young intern Mallory, as sole employee,  is tasked with uncovering them. That would be fine, but the daily threatening anonymous phone calls, are not. 

This is a joyous debut full of wit and fun, as well as some new words to use next time I'm playing Scrabble. Indeed I read it in two days and right up until the final two chapters of Malloy's tale I was in love with this book. But then: the resolution of the Mallory side of things let things down. It just seemed a bit naff. Which is a shame. I suspect most people won't be as bothered as me, and that's fine. Most importantly though is that up to that point it was great. I like how each chapter is a letter of the alphabet : B is for bluff (v.),  S is for sham (n. and adj.) etc and how changing language and definition is woven into the fabric of the tale, and how playful it all is, for example when Malloy says to her girlfriend Pip "I wish I had an easy way to remember how to spell mnemonic" 😊. 

Immediately added to the 'books to gift people' list.

Thank you Random House UK and Netgalley for the ARC.
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"This loading hourglass, though. A further pair of pixels was suspended in the centre of the graphic to imply that sand was falling - as one watched the screen, this hourglass would swivel on its axis as if tipped and re-tipped by an unseen moderator's fingers. Everybody knows this. Why am I explaining hourglasses to myself? Proximity to encyclopaedic dictionaries made me a bore.' 

Hmm, sorry, but yes: *why is* the modern-day narrator Mallory explaining the Windows hourglass to us, and even more sadly, yes, she *is* a bore... This is a book that I expected to love: words, lexicon play, the concept of 'false' dictionary entries all had my mouth watering but in reality I found this tedious and yes, boring. Williams does offer up some lovely words but that's simply not enough to keep me reading (after all, I could simply go off and dip into the OED for myself - actually, I do, frequently, distracted and seduced once I open that tome!). 

There is some slight mileage in the idea that trying to pin down a slippery world through 'truthful' and fixed definitions is a hopeless task - but surely that's not news to anyone? There are also some mildly amusing links between the two narratives such as when Winceworth in the eighteenth century narrative thinks to himself 'you drink too much and this headache was the result - the world was surely in the market for such an affliction to bear a name?' while Mallory is contemplating the word 'hangover'.

But there just isn't enough substance here for me - and the add-on plot is just silly. I'm a word-nerd but this book didn't work for me.
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I'm always a sucker for novels about (or heavily infused by) books, words and/or language, so The Liar's Dictionary appealed to me right from the initial description: of a story split between a Victorian lexicographer inserting made-up words into a dictionary, and a present-day intern at the same dictionary trying to find them.

There's a real love of language in all its quirks running throughout this novel: it didn't just leave me with a new stash of words (not all of them fictional) to use, but it often made me laugh too. It made me want to go and bury my nose in a dictionary alongside reading it.

The risk of a split narrative is that readers might enjoy one more than the other, and I was worried about this for the first half of the book, when I warmed to Mallory, the present-day character, much more than to Peter the Victorian lexicographer. That's not a criticism of the writing: if anything, it's because Eley Williams has done such a good job of creating a character who's... well, I found him a bit too peevish and irritating.

In the second half of the book, I came round, and I think that's *definitely* a testament to the writing: to end up rooting for a character who I expected to be thoroughly fed up with by the end of the novel.

I also loved the relationship between Mallory and her girlfriend Pip: it's supportive with a shared sense of humour – the moment where Pip fields a phone call meant for Mallory is both, for example: I hooted at the punchline after she puts the phone down, but it was very touching too.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an advance reader copy (ARC) via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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This book is wonderful! I've seen many people pulling out all the stops with obscure dictionary definitions to describe its delightfulness (not a word, that's fine). It's a very quirky exploration of a bunch of silly and satisfying words, both real and made up, with a couple absurd story lines weaved in for good measure. The jumps between timelines is reminiscent of How to be Both by Ali Smith, so if you enjoyed that you will enjoy this too!
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3.5 rounded down

While I was not quite as enamoured of this than other readers appear to be, I expect this book will find many fans among linguists and linguaphiles alike; Eley Williams has written a book about words and language which could only have been written by someone who wholly shares the love of words held by its characters.

The novel is split across two narratives: one in the present day where we follow Mallory, an intern at the Swansby Dictionary who has been tasked with finding all of the made-up or false words planted in the dictionary by a disgruntled former employee. The other narrative follows this former employee, Peter Winceworth, and we learn more about why he did what he did.

My favourite part of the novel was all of the weird and wonderful words included (both real and false) and their definitions. It's always a shame with a dual narrative story when you greatly prefer one narrative to the other and find yourself racing through the other sections to get back to the preferred half of the story. Regardless, this is a fun story about words and autonomy and what playing with language can bring to our lives.
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As a huge fan of Eley Williams' short story collection Attrib., I was so thrilled to be approved for this galley of her debut novel. Like her short stories, this novel is witty and intelligent. It is set in the HQ of Swansby's Dictionary in two time periods: in 1899 Peter Winsworth is inventing his own entries and placing them in the dictionary, in the modern day, Mallory is having to tease out the fictitious entries before the Swansby's Dictionary goes online. Its intertwining narratives were fascinating and Williams' love of playing with language is evident from the very start. Swansby's is definitely cast as the underdog dictionary of the age, and I loved the initial set up of comparing them to all the big players in the world of words. This book is clever but also full of heart. I loved Mallory's story in particular and how she explores her own identity through language and what it specifically means to her, 

Thank you for the galley. A most enjoyable read!
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The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is a novel for anyone who loves words. Strong characters and an interesting plot.
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A Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is a stunning book, sparkling with the joy of words and lexicography.  

Two stories intertwine around dictionary definitions of words which may or may not exist (and if they don’t exist maybe should).  Each story is set in the same Westminster building housing Swansby’s Dictionary, more than a century apart.  Victorian lexicographer Peter Winceworth fakes a lisp and creates fictitious dictionary entries while present-day intern Mallory eats eggs in a store room and tries to work out which dictionary definitions are faked.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, recommended to all word-lovers.

Thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for honest feedback.
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Playful rather than experimental, intelligent rather than clever, and provocative rather than over-confident, The Liar's Dictionary is a delight.  It brings together two narratives from different time periods (1899 and now) in an amusing, inventive narrative of dictionaries, etymologies and language.  Although the overlapping narratives played off against each other really well, I thought the historical half (which remained me of the under-valued books of Andrew Crumey) worked better. I was only really disappointed by the predictableness of the ending.  Like Attrib, her preceding story collection, this is excellent though.
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Brilliant how these two narratives are being interwoven and the plot develops! I like the structure and how the book  is alphabetically organized, I love the interest and love for words, language and 'mountweazels,' and the characters are great. Wonderful novel!
Thank you Random House UK and Netgalley for the ARC.
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If you read and loved Williams’ short story collection Attrib (and who didn’t?) then you’ll want to get a hold of this as soon as it’s published in July. This, Williams’ first novel, is perfect in every way. It follows dual timelines, both of staff members at an obscure London-based dictionary’s offices, and alternates between their stories set in the present day and the fin de siècle. Williams’ use of language, particularly in the setting of a dictionary, is just exquisite. The imagery is perfect too, like “a well-crafted sentence runs through the reading mind as a rope runs through hands.” The kind of unusual and exaggerated language that Williams uses could easily seem patronising and exclusionary in some else’s hands, but this is a really readable book, even if I did occasionally have to look up what a word meant. I took that to be in the spirit of a book about making a dictionary.
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The Liar's Dictionary is a novel about language, definitions, and the lives of two characters connected by the same dictionary. In 1899, Peter Winceworth is working on 'S' for Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, feeling ignored and intrigued by the possibility of inventing words to suit the experiences and feelings he wants to express. And in the present day, Mallory works as an intern and the only employee other than the owner of Swansby's, where she fields anonymous threatening phone calls every day. When she's tasked with hunting down all of the fictitious entries in the dictionary before its digital publication, her and her girlfriend end up drawn into the world of fake definitions, and the phone calls keep coming.

This is a charming novel with chapters named for words in alphabetic order and alternating between each narrative. It draws you into the lives of the two protagonists, both overwhelmed and a bit unsure with things in their lives, but brought together by the dictionary and by Peter's fictitious entries, known as 'mountweazels'. Language and definitions and how we use words are celebrated in the novel, but the style remains readable and unpretentious, thinking about the excitement and creativity of finding words for things or giving unnamed things names. Both characters' narratives are satisfying and gripping, with neat flourishes and endearing moments, but also chances to define things in their lives and take control of their futures.

Book and word lovers will undoubtedly enjoy this novel, but so will people looking for endearing characters and quirky narratives. It is a fun reading experience that makes you care for the characters, but also plays around with language and definitions and the need for people to trust.
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Fun with words.!

Victorian lexicographer, Peter Winceworth, inserts fictitious entries in Swansby’s Dictionary. Present-day intern, Mallory, has been tasked with identifying these mountweazels before the dictionary is digitised. 

The strands of the dual narrative nudge against each other gently, and wisely pull back from over-explanation.

Williams’s love for, and expertise in, words shines in this sparkling, witty, absurd and clever debut novel. 

A joy to read.

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK for the ARC.
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Wonderfully (adv.): “in a way that inspires delight or admiration; extremely well”

Whimsical: (adj): "(1) playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way"

Wordsmithery (noun): from the Urban Dictionary: "The awesome ability to bring words together to make something magical"

Williams (author): "previously author of Attrib. my book of 2017 in the Guardian 

Winner (deservedly): of the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize (for which I was a judge) 

With (my thanks to): Random House UK for an ARC via NetGalley.
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Eley Williams’ quite brilliant Attrib, published by Influx Press, won the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize – I was privileged to be a member of the jury that awarded the prize to a unique collection of short stories, which stood out for its love of, and innovative use of, language, itself often associated with the love of a partner.    The citation on the Prize’s website reads:

"In his review of the book in the LRB, Michael Hofmann called Attrib. the work of an “Alphabetophile”; these love letters to language are certainly that, but they are also the work of someone who dearly likes people too. Williams is a fantastic noticer, and she writes about how words and letters connect to people and objects. So many of these seventeen stories are small wondrous things, shots of linguistic pleasure that take moments of everyday life and fashion something marvellous from them."

This same flavour is inherent to this, Williams’  debut novel – with both the love of words and letters and the affection for her characters shining through, the former via the focus on the world of dictionaries.  In a 2014 blog post for Influx Press Williams recalled:

"I wrote a dictionary when I was fourteen. It was exam term and, in an effort to read anything other than the allotted textbooks, I had stumbled across a magazine article about Chambers Dictionary’s editors, specifically the surreptitious insertion of jokes into the text of their lexicons (See: ‘éclair n. - a cake, long in shape but short in duration’). The idea of lexicographers smuggling such entries into an otherwise sincere work of reference struck me as the most amazing act of literary subversion imaginable; I’ve been a fan of éclairs, and eccentricities in dictionaries ever since.

My dictionary consisted of a mighty thirty definitions before I realised Year 9 German wasn’t going to revise itself and abandoned the project. I can recall the gist of just one of its entries: ‘black humour – the insertion of one’s tongue into one’s cheek until such an action hurts, to the point of becoming unbearable’. Not a great line, but there we are."

One can trace a clear line from there to Liar’s Dictionary.  The aforementioned definition of éclair features in the novel, but the alphabetically order chapter heading for “E” is actually E for esquivalience”, a fake word that appeared in the 2001 Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary, defined as “the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities; the shirking of duties”, but actually intended as a protection against copyright theft.  This type of dictionary or encyclopedia entry  is known as a “Mountweazel” after a similarly invented entry in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia about the ficticious Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the neologism for such entries being coined by the New Yorker in 2005.

Liar’s Dictionary contains two stories, told in alternating sections, both centred on the headquarters of the (fictitious) Swansby’s dictionary in prime London, the two protagonists both at first seemingly rather powerless in the face of authority.

The first, set 100 years ago, is when the dictionary was being compiled and tells the third-person story of Winceworth, a mild-mannered and rather hapless lexicographer working on the dictionary, particularly the ‘S’ section.

The second is set in the present day, and is narrated by Mallory, the sole employee (an intern) at the much diminished Swansby’s operation (although still in the same building), now run by David the descendent of the original eponymous creator of the dictionary. 

"Not the first nor the best and certainly not the most famous dictionary of the English language, Swansby’s has always been a poor shadow of its competitors as a work of reference–from the first printed edition in 1930 to today it has nowhere near the success nor rigorousness of Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. Those sleek dark blue hearses. Swansby’s is also far less successful than Collins or Chambers, Merriam-Webster’s or Macmillan. It only really has a place in the public imagination because Swansby’s is incomplete.

If you asked David Swansby about the nature of Swansby’s as an incomplete project and therefore a failure, he would draw himself up to his full height of circa two hundred foot and tell you he would defer to Auden’s quotation: that a piece of art is never finished, it is just abandoned. David would then check himself, escape to a bookshelf and come back ten minutes later and say of course that particular quotation belonged to Jean Cocteau. Another ten minutes would pass and David Swansby would seek you out and would clarify that line was actually first and best said by Paul Valéry."

Mallory’s role includes answering the phone, particularly distressing due to daily threats made by an anonymous individual, angry at the dictionary’s proposed modern updating of the definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships.  Meanwhile, Mallory feels unable to acknowledge to David her own relationship with her partner Pip.

Back 100 years ago, as the rather lonely Winceworth, either ignored by his colleagues or the butt of their jokes, largely due to (faked) lisp, becomes rather disillusioned with his job, he starts to invent fake words of his own, and then, triggered by a series of events, decides to actually insert them in the dictionary as an act of wilful sabotage:

"He could pepper the dictionary with false entries. Thousands of them – cuckoos-in-the-nest, changeling words, easily overlooked mistakes. He could define parts of the world that only he could see or for which he felt responsible. He could be in control of a whole universe of new meanings, private triumphs and soaring new truths all hidden in the printed pages whenever the dictionary was finished and (absurd notion!) others might find his words in print."

And back in the present day, as David attempts to digitise Swansby’s dictionary, he comes across the false entries, and gives Mallory the job of tracking them down and eliminating them.

"’I need to talk to you about Mountweazels.’

‘Mountweazels,’ I repeated.

‘There are mistakes. In the dictionary,’ David said. 

There seemed to be a sob edging the softness of his voice. I stared at him. He assumed a defensive tone. 

‘Well. Not mistakes. Not-quite mistakes. They’re words that are meant to be there but not meant to be there.’

‘Mountweazels,’ I repeated again. 

‘Other dictionaries have them! Most!’ David Swansby said. ‘They’re made-up words.’ 

‘All words are made up,’ I said. ‘That is true,’ David Swansby replied, ‘and also not a useful contribution.’"

In a 2018 discussion with fellow author Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Williams gave her first hints of the novel to come and commented:

"”Endings have a certain loaded horror for me — and this isn’t too much of a spoiler as things will change — I couldn’t think of a way to end that piece, so the central building in the novel just explodes for very little reason whatsoever, as that seemed final or the beginning of another story.”"

Two explosions, one in each era, do actually feature in the novel, but Williams has found her 'reason' as they both serve as a key catalyst to the plot and the development of her characters, as well as creating a wonderful link with the fictitious Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, who per the Mountweazeled encyclopedia entry died "at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine."

The creation and discovery of the Mountweazels also neatly parallel how both Winceworth and Mallory develop as characters, their confidence in the authority of others breaking down along with their confidence of the authoritativeness of dictionaries, but this proving a positive in their own self-confidence.

The two stories are told in a way that is playfully quaint, especially in an appealing and amusing way (there is a word for that, but another reader of the novel has claimed it for his review), and marked with Williams’ genuine, sentimental, affection for her two lead characters.    

But the real star of the show is the language, the exploration of words and meaning, but also bravura passages such as this (a description of dandelion seeds):

"One brave bird hopped about his feet for cake crumbs while still more were flitting above his head with the dandelion seeds, blown wishes finding a smeuse in the air. The best benchside exoticisms January could offer were all on show–the starling, the dandelion, the blown seeds and the birds skeining against the grey clouds, hazing it and mazing it, a featherlight kaleidoscope noon-damp and knowing the sky was never truly grey, just filled with a thousand years of birds’ paths, and wishful seeds, a bird-seed sky as something meddled and ripe and wish-hot, the breeze bird-breath soft like a–what–heart stopped in a lobby above one’s lungs as well it might, as might it will–seeds take a shape too soft to be called a burr, like falling asleep on a bench with the sun on your face, seeds in a shape too soft to be called a globe, too breakable to be a constellation, too tough to not be worth wishing upon, the crowd of birds, an unheard murmuration (pl. n.) not led by one bird but a cloud-folly of seeds, blasted by one of countless breaths escaping from blasted wished-upon clock as a breath, providing a clockwork with no regard to time nor hands, flocking with no purpose other than the clotting and thrilling and thrumming, a flock as gathered ellipses rather than lines of wing and bone and beak, falling asleep grey-headed rather than young and dazzling–more puff than flower–collecting the ellipses of empty speech bubbles, the words never said or sayable, former pauses in speech as busy as leaderless birds, twisting, blown apart softly, to warm and colour even the widest of skies."

One fascination of a book like this is one finds oneself querying etymology (*) and finding additional facts of one's own that the characters have missed.
(* a word I routinely confuse with entomology - perhaps I should coin entoetymology as the study of the origin of the names of insects)

For example, I am not quite convinced that the neologisms are really Mountweazels – they feel closer to Sniglets, “an often humorous word made up to describe something for which no dictionary word exists”, a concept that dates back at least as far as Gelett Burgess’s Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, although the credit for inventing a word for invented words goes to comedian Rich Hall.

A tradition at Swansby’s is that the office cat’s are all called Titivillus, a demon said, dating back the 13th century, to introduce errors into the work of scribes, as David half explains ”Crops up in mystery plays: used to be blamed for introducing errors into written works. Slip-ups, typos, that kind of thing."  Rather wonderfully, although not in the novel, Mark Drogin’s 1980 book Medieval Calligraphy, Its History and Technique points out that "for the past half-century every edition of The Oxford English Dictionary has listed an incorrect page reference for, of all things, a footnote on the earliest mention of Titivillus."

And when one sees a sentence like this in the novel, one isn’t sure if “steating”is a typo (understandable in an ARC), a real-world or a neologism of the author’s own:

<i>Winceworth steated – he must have fallen asleep at his desk. </i>

A true pleasure to read and a paean to the power of prose.

Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.


Influx Press blog article:

New Yorker:

Discussion with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan:

Eley Wiliams reading from the novel: 

An interview with the author on the novel:

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I am indebted to an interview ( for helping me to get my thoughts in order. And to a friend for sending me that link while I was reading the book (I guess there’s a chance I would have found it myself when I started scouring the Internet, but he saved me a lot of time).

In the interview, Eley Williams says

”When tinkering with the first draft, I’d also just finished a PhD about dictionaries and their relationship to fiction and ‘fictitiousness’, concentrating on false entries in dictionaries and encyclopaedias.”

It is clear from both this book and Williams’ collection of short stories (Attrib. and other stories) that this is an author who loves words. My over-riding impression as I read this book was of a playground: it feels as though Williams has a set words free in a playground and then watched them as they play together. The book is full of word play (”We continued to pore and paw and pour over the index cards”), portmanteau words (my favourite is “procrastinattering” which describes the times when you hang around talking to someone in order to avoid doing something) and unusual word choices that make it refreshing to read. Why did I not know that a group of cats is called a clowder?

For me, the greatest pleasure in reading this book is the language.

But what is it actually about? The blurb makes it fairly clear. Mallory is an intern at a dictionary publisher who is set the task of finding mountweazels (false entries) in the text before it is digitised. One hundred years earlier than this, Peter Winceworth is a lexicographer who is driven by circumstances to start inserting false definitions into the dictionary. The text alternates between the two stories and there are often echoes from one to the other (for example, in one episode, Winceworth finds himself wrestling a pelican - see, you need to read this book - and then in the following episode, Mallory wrestles with the different meaning of the word pelican that are in the dictionary). All the way through, there are hints and echoes that suggest the stories are on a collision course, but the book is not so obvious as that.

There are, though, I think, two ways in which the stories do come together. Firstly, a quote from the interview already mentioned:

"…it strikes me that both Winceworth and Mallory try to conjure imagined characteristics for each other in a similar way. Although in the novel their timelines are separated by over 100 years, Mallory imagines what kind of person could be writing the false entries in the dictionary, while Winceworth tries to conceive of someone who might ever come across them. They start with stereotypes then ‘flesh-out’ these caricatures into sketches of flawed and hopeless dweebs, which develop into portraits of nuanced and hopeful dweebs, until finally they both imagine the other as recognisable and rounded individuals. And, in the act of imagining and creating, reveal something about themselves."

So, the echoes between the story lines work at that level, as well, which I rather like.

Secondly, Winceworth witnesses an explosion which seems to be the trigger for a change in his outlook and to lead to him starting to insert his false definitions into the dictionary. In parallel, Mallory also witnesses an explosion and her story finishes with her contemplating how her life should change in the future. I highlighted a long passage that begins ”A truth of it is: I changed in a small way that evening…". I won’t include any more of that passage in case of spoilers, but I really like the way the stories are linked by echoes and ideas rather than by an actual connection being made. (Another and even more tenuous example of this is Richard Powers’ book Plowing The Dark).

For me, this book worked on two levels. Firstly, I enjoyed the experience of reading it because I enjoyed the word play. It feels playful all the way through which makes it refreshing to read. At times, I felt that maybe it was going to end up being a bit too playful, but the way it worked after I finished it and when I stopped to think about it for a while remedied that. So that’s my advice: read it to enjoy the language then pause at the end to consider the way the stories work together. It’s very rewarding.
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An absolutely incredible novel - Eley Williams has a masterful way with words. 

Following on from her collection of short stories – Attrib. – Williams has crafted a novel that is fiercely intelligent yet delightfully playful. 

Telling the stories of a Victorian lexicographer and a contemporary one, The Liar's Dictionary explores the collective and personal meaning of words. What does it mean to define them for others? What does it mean to create them for oneself? How does the usage of words change over time?

The Liar’s Dictionary explores the power and instability of language, and plays with words in a way that is beguiling and intriguing.
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