REVIEW

The Liar's Dictionary, by Eley Williams, is an inventive take on words, dictionaries and human connections

Author Eley Williams. Picture: Supplied

Author Eley Williams. Picture: Supplied

  • The Liar's Dictionary, by Eley Williams. Heinemann, $32.99.

Adelaide author, Pip Williams' novel The Dictionary of Lost Words, published in March 2020, has been a huge critical and commercial success, selling over 100,000 copies globally by the end of 2020.

Now comes, another dictionary-focused novel, The Liar's Dictionary, by British author, Eley Williams, whose collection of short stories Attrib, full of exotic word play, won the James Tait Black Prize in 2018.

Williams has commented in an interview on her "persistent anxieties about communication and miscommunication . . .who gets to be in control of language, how a word is used", particularly important issues in an era of fake news.

Williams's doctoral dissertation focused on "mountweazels", fake entries deliberately inserted into dictionaries, encyclopedias and reference works as a means of preventing copyright infringement.

Williams uses this knowledge to full effect in The Liar's Dictionary, as she follows two people, 100 years apart, working on Swansby's Enclyclopaedic Dictionary.

In 1899, Peter Winceworth, a shy and troubled lexicographer, allocated the letter S for the Dictionary, rails against the regimentation of being "under pressure to bring out the first edition before the Oxford English managed it".

Winceworth takes revenge by seeding the dictionary with "mountweazels".

In the present day, the dictionary struggles on with only two staff, the overly demanding owner, David Swansby and a young female intern, Mallory, whose task is to detect the false entries, so that the dictionary can be digitised.

As she gradually unearths them, she begins to empathise with Winceworth, "our obscure mountweazeler . . . bent on chaos, disruption . . . And having the last laugh".

Williams alternates chapters between Winceworth and Mallory, for whom the love of words is a refuge from personal problems.

Both will ultimately need to confront their issues by breaking out to connect.

Mallory, who has been keeping secret her relationship with Pip, her female "flatmate", from her employer and her family, has to deal with daily phone bomb threats to burn down the Swansby building by a caller, who disputes the dictionary's new definition of marriage as simply being "between ... persons".

Williams has reflected, "Much of the novel is actually about the workplace and how one can feel valued or under-valued".

She explores these issues in The Liar's Dictionary, through two well drawn main characters and a narrative full of linguistic pyrotechnics.

It's a novel infused with humour, sometimes dark, and invention.

This story A darkly humorous and inventive take on words first appeared on The Canberra Times.