The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams: ’The action of telling lies in an artful way’

Cover image for The Liar's Dictionary by Eley WilliamsI 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

29 thoughts on “The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams: ’The action of telling lies in an artful way’”

  1. I’ve read a number of glowing reviews of this novel, and very much like the sound of its combination of linguistic material, wit and history. Must see if my recently reopened library has been enterprising enough to acquire a copy…

  2. Oh, no, Susan, so sorry to hear about your wrist – however did you manage that? I do hope you recover fully from it as soon as possible, but joints can be a painful and long-winded business.

    1. Thanks, Marina. I managed to trip on one of Bath’s many uneven pavements. I’m expecting six, weeks or so in plaster, however there’s nothing like a trip to A & E to make you count your blessings!

  3. Sorry to hear about the wrist. What a pain -almost certainly, literally! This sounds right up my street as an English Language scholar and I know just the lexicographer to give it to for Christmas.

  4. Oh no, sorry to hear about your accident! I hope it’s not your dominant hand and you heal up quickly. I haven’t broken a bone since my early 20s and it’s not an experience I’d be keen to repeat.

    I’m halfway through this novel and enjoying it very much, but not proceeding at a great pace as I usually only read one letter/chapter at a time. In tone and with the dual timeline, it reminds me of Enter the Aardvark.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. Unfortunately, it is my dominant hand so I’m going to have to get the other up to speed.

      I think slowly is probably the best way to enjoy and appreciate this one

  5. So sorry to hear about your wrist, Susan. Hope it heals soon.

    I loved this book too. You’ll love Williams’ short stories too, I’m sure, they have much in common with the novel in terms of playing with language and love.

  6. So sorry to hear about your wrist, Susan. That must be so awkward, especially as it’s your dominant hand, Wishing you a very speedy recovery. As for the book, it sounds great – so good to her that it lives up to all the advance notices.

  7. Put the word ‘dictionary’ on a novel and I’m immediately twice as curious. This sounds so satisfying. I’ve not read the short stories either (the library never did purchase them) but I’m still interested in them as well. Awww, bad luck with the wrist, but just think of all the neural workouts you’ll be getting as you work to strengthen the other side. Silver lining?

  8. I’m reading this at the moment and positively wordbathing (may have invented a new word there) in her glorious use of language. It’s so good that I’m reading a chapter a night and making it last longer. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the short stories every bit as much.

  9. I keep hearing good things about this new book. I’m looking forward to reading it. It sounds wonderful! Thanks for the great review. Also, sorry to read about your broken wrist. I hope it heals up well, and soon.

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