I remember Eley Williams’ collection of short stories, Attrib, being garlanded with praise from all sorts of people whose opinions I trust back in 2017 when it was published. I’ve no idea why I didn’t get around to reading it, being well over my short story aversion by then, particularly as its themes seem to be language and communication, both of which interest me. Suffice to say after reading The Liar’s Dictionary I’ll be putting that right pronto. In it, a young woman, interning for the publisher of an unfinished encyclopaedic dictionary, fields threatening phone calls while, in 1899, a lexicographer lays a trail of falsities.
Last in a line of Sawnsbys dedicated to the seemingly endless compilation of their eponymous dictionary, David Swansby took on Mallory three years ago. Her sole designated task is to answer the phone which rings with monotonous daily regularity, delivering an abusive threat which she keeps to herself. In her copious spare time, Mallory reads the dictionary, fascinated by the many diversions if offers her. After stumbling upon several false entries, David asks Mallory to track down these ‘mountweazels’ prior to digitising it. When the daily call takes an even darker turn, Mallory takes a step she’s been putting off for far too long. Meanwhile, in 1899 Peter Winceworth, regularly jeered at by his colleagues, is slyly slipping falsities into Swansby’s dictionary. One day, horribly hungover after his bête noir’s birthday party, Winceworth is sent off on a wild goose chase which ends dramatically. Who is the woman he met that night, and why has she taken an interest in him?
Agrup (adj), irritation caused by having a dénoument ruined
Hard to do this smart, accomplished novel justice without turning this review into one long gush. From its Preface laying out the perfect dictionary to its intriguing end, Williams’ book was an absolute joy for me, pressing a multitude of my literary buttons. A dual narrative peppered with lots of discursive etymological nuggets, witty and occasionally laugh out loud funny, it’s also a glorious piece of storytelling. The nineteenth-century strand is particularly enjoyable, full of colourful characters and striking scenes – pelican wrestling in St James’ Park is one which will stay with me for quite some time. And it’s all beautifully put together, each chapter headed with a dictionary entry which will have you checking its veracity. I can’t remember when I last got the Shorter Oxfords off the shelves but I should do it more often – so much more satisfying than googling. It’s rare that I do that thing of finishing a novel wanting to start back at the beginning but I’m sure there’s a great deal I missed in Williams’ clever, entertaining and erudite book.
So impressed was I by The Liar’s Dictionary that I included it on my Booker wishlist thereby putting the kybosh on its chances although two of my wishes have come true and they’re both debuts. Congratulations to Douglas Stuart for the wonderful Shuggie Bain (review soon) and to C Pam Zhang for the striking How Much of These Hills Is Gold, both on the longlist. Fingers crossed they’ll make it through to the shortlist which will be revealed on 15th September.
And in other news – I’ve broken my wrist. Given my pandemic review backlog, I’ll still be posting but, sadly, may not be able to comment on other blogs for a while. Hey, ho…
William Heinemann: London 9781785152047 265 pages Hardback