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The Liar's Dictionary

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An exhilarating and laugh-out-loud debut novel from a prize-winning new talent which chronicles the misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and the young woman put on his trail a century later to root out his misdeeds while confronting questions of her own sexuality and place in the world.

Mountweazel n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

Peter Winceworth, Victorian lexicographer, is toiling away at the letter S for Swansby's multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary. His disaffection compels him to insert unauthorized fictitious entries into the dictionary in an attempt to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom.

In the present day, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, is tasked with uncovering these mountweazels before the work is digitized. She also has to contend with threatening phone calls from an anonymous caller. Is the change in the definition of marriage really that upsetting? And does the caller really intend for the Swansby's staff to 'burn in hell'?

As these two narratives combine, both Winceworth and Mallory discover how they might negotiate the complexities of the often nonsensical, relentless, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, and undefinable path we call life. An exhilarating debut novel from a formidably brilliant young writer, The Liar's Dictionary celebrates the rigidity, fragility, absurdity, and joy of language.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published July 16, 2020

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About the author

Eley Williams

22 books177 followers
ELEY WILLIAMS is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She is the author of Attrib. and Other Stories and The Liar's Dictionary. Her work has appeared in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, Liberating the Canon, The Times Literary Supplement, and London Review of Books. She lives in London.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,826 reviews
Profile Image for Adina ( A lot of catching up to do) .
826 reviews3,241 followers
August 17, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,262 followers
April 30, 2023
The author was recently selected for the decennial Granta Best of Young British Novelists list (2023 edition).

This novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction

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 (https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...)

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.

And for two more detailed reviews by fellow RoC judges

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,860 followers
July 12, 2022
This is a book that carried me through the first time with the surprise and delight of the words themselves. What marvelous attention to language!

The the second time I read the book, though, what formerly hit me as 'exuberant' now hit me as 'ridiculous.' And 'ridiculous' is fine--some of the best most beloved characters in the world are ridiculous, from Don Quixote to Yossarian--but ridiculous only works if you take your own characters seriously. I do think Williams could have given her characters more inner fire and humanity and seriousness than she does and I'm sorry she missed the chance.

Winceworth has all the makings for a great tragicomic hero but there isn't enough inner motivation here on the page for him to live up to that potential. There is something so poignant in the way he is reflecting his inner life in his mountweazals, but it's an understated theme, and, I don't know, I longed for Mallory to honor the person who had added those odd words instead of mindlessly doing her job and erasing Winceworth from existence. I wanted there to be some connection or empathy between the main characters of the two braided threads in this novel, where Mallory would want to preserve Winceworth's made-up words or try to understand them as a full message from the past. To have those words speak to her more fully and to make this odd character from the past come alive to her--the way shakespeare in his sonnets claims his words can give a person a kind of immortality.

It's a tribute to the book's strength that here I am wishing it were better than it is. It's still a very fun read. If a book wants to be ridiculous, I want it to capture the ridiculousness of human existence while still making me care very much. There is such lovely writing here that I wanted more from this author than she gave me. I'm not sure if that's fair at all.

I still believe what I wrote in my former review below about the audacious remarkable use of language in this novel and look forward to a next novel from Williams that gives the same loving attention to her characters as well.

first review:

Yay! Yay! Yay!

The Liar's Dictionary is so entertaining, so riveting, and above all so attentive to language, that reading it felt like I was in the presence of a virtuoso performer of an instrument called Language. Williams set an audacious goal for herself, here, when she made the underlying premise of her novel be the search for precision in language/meaning. With this as her premise, she needed to write in a narrative voice equal to the task--to write in precisely the right words, one after the other. Her narrator is a fascinating, perceptive, big-hearted logophile. I loved spending time with her! This novel may be a delightful comedy, but the language is breathtakingly precise. It's surprising in its incisiveness and nuance, and it's this attentiveness that makes the novel such a delight to read.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,431 reviews2,511 followers
June 22, 2020
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 along the way 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 nineteenth 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.

Thanks anyway to the publisher for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews28 followers
January 7, 2021
I started this review earlier- debated on posting it given how shocking & devastating today’s events have been —
the domestic attack on The White House.
Sad and outraged....
But here goes...my little teaser review: ( this was a unique creative book)

The alphabet never looked so visionary......@
Galvanic .....sycophantic .....
idiosyncratic ..... melange .....
sidesplitting ..... methodical ..... amour-propre
..... buffoonery ..... smoldering
..... bonzer ..... jubilant .....

This ‘word-power-book’ is outlandishly insightful;
onomatopoeia ——
incredibly *fun* — clever ....
with two charming nerdy characters ( past and present days) named Peter and Mallory.

Linguistically and theatrically delicious storytelling in the realm of lexicography.
A book my husband especially adores. ( he plays word game daily).
Paul and I started making up our own new words....
and tellytayle...

FAKE NEWS.... dictionary-storytelling?
Paul and I had fun with this clever book ....(a little pretentious... but I think I knew that was to be expected from the start).

5 stars for Paul... (I loved his enjoyment)....
which added to my enjoyment....
But...I’ll rate this 4 stars for how it’s creativity stimulating our own creative thoughts.
Profile Image for But_i_thought_.
178 reviews1,477 followers
February 28, 2021
Linguistic onanism (n.): the act of writing purely for the joy of stringing together beautiful phrases

Narrative solipsism (n.): writing that gives dimension to the narrators only, making all other characters in the story appear unreal

Lexicophilic narration (n.): writing that is deliberately sprinkled with obscure and archaic term, prompting the reader to consume the text with a dictionary in hand

I had high hopes for this novel after enjoying Ely William’s much lauded short story collection Attrib. and other stories. Unfortunately, the weaknesses that were evident in that collection – particularly with regards to plotting and characterization – are amplified here, in novel form.

In brief, the female love interests in the story are all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the male characters are rather cartoonish and the plotting gets more and more absurd as the story progresses.

That said, the book is not without its (linguistic) delights. Williams uses the novel’s premise as an opportunity to geek out about language, lexicography and etymology. Here are a few highlights from the text:

On the shape of words
With its symmetry and little dashed isthmus between the two words, ‘hour-glass’ on the page is like the object itself, lying on its side or balanced mid-spin.

On synesthesia
The photograph itself was that mottled kind of sepia that is not quite grey and not quite brown, ash and moth-coloured. It is a colour that leads you to believe that if you were ever moved to lick the photograph it would taste of toffee and bourbon and bookshop dust.

On onomatopoeia
Some words are made for speculative onomatopoeia. Have I ever spelled onomatopoeia correctly on first time of typing? Have I fuck. Onomatopoeia is onomatopoeia for mashing your hands unthinkingly but hopefully onto a keyboard.

Rating: 6/10
Mood: At time delightful, at times tedious

Related reviews
Attrib. and other stories
Profile Image for Sawsan.
1,002 reviews
October 6, 2020
Delightful novel dealing with words, definitions, allusions and meditations of language
narration combines in a funny way between a lexicographer from Nineteenth century and an intern at the present.. both of them work in Swansby's Dictionary
of course dictionaries are valuable but regardless of all its definitions, the daily life still full of vague, elusive and undefined meanings

Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
July 20, 2020
I have been looking forward to reading more by Eley Williams since reading her wonderful short story collection Attrib. and other stories shortly before it won the Republic of Consciousness Prize. This, her first novel, meets the same very high standards, and is a very entertaining piece of storytelling set in the eccentric world of lexicography.

The premise is that an encyclopaedic dictionary, started in late Victorian times and published incomplete shortly after to the First World War, is being put online and updated by the heir to the family business.

The 26 chapters (one for each letter of the alphabet) alternate between the late nineteenth century story of Winceworth, who is bored by his work and seeks a form of immortality by inserting his own neologisms into the dictionary's card index system, and the modern day story narrated by Mallory, a young intern who has been assigned the task of tracking down these rogue words (rather charmingly known as mountweazels). Needless to say this allows Williams plenty of space to explore her own favourite words and dictionary stories.
Profile Image for Ari Levine.
193 reviews146 followers
August 13, 2020
Terribly twee even for me, and I'm a member of its intended in-group, as a bespectacled and tweed-encrusted academic who's rather enamored of erudite wordplay, linguistic parlor games, and cryptic crosswords. Emotionally insubstantial and besotted with its own cleverness, and only readable in small doses. Or maybe I just wasn't in much of a ludic mood for light entertainment, given the general Chernobyl-type atmosphere at present.

Thanks to NetGalley and Doubleday for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for this unbiased review.
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
586 reviews4,736 followers
May 3, 2021
Dictionaries tend to be utilitarian, unglamorous things—pulled off of a shelf when needed, but otherwise gathering dust, especially as readers turn to digital resources. But in the preface of her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, Eley Williams shrugs off that drab image, inviting readers through her spry language to imagine their own perfect dictionary and all the tangibles and intangibles it would possess. The structure of the book even mimics a dictionary, with a chapter for every letter of the alphabet, beginning with “A” for “artful” and “Z” for the tongue-twisting “zugzwang.”

Read the rest of my review on Harvard Review Online.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,210 followers
June 13, 2020
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.’

Winceworth's Mountweazels also give Mallory some insight into his character, and the reader sees the echo of his story and situation.

Explosions are also important. 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 Lewis Carroll's portmanteau words are an earlier source), although the credit for inventing this 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:

Winceworth steated – he must have fallen asleep at his desk.

A true pleasure to read and a paean to the power of prose. 4.5 stars

Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.


Influx Press blog article: https://www.influxpress.com/blog/the-...

New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...

Discussion with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: https://www.thewhitereview.org/featur...

Eley Wiliams reading from the novel: https://soundcloud.com/goldsmithsuol/...

An interview with the author on the novel: https://pentransmissions.com/2020/05/...

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fictiti...
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
January 31, 2021
"I beg your pardon. I had not realised this plant was taken."

If you've ever geeked out about words, language, the OED, this may be the novel for you. It follows two characters working on a dictionary which has the primary reputation of remaining unfinished. What's hard to communicate is the joy and glee experienced at times, despite the rather mundane work. It's also a good read for people who like workplace narratives.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews638 followers
May 1, 2020
I am indebted to the interview here for helping me to get my thoughts in order. And to Paul 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.

My thanks to Random House UK for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Robert.
1,999 reviews195 followers
July 21, 2020
Liar : a person who tells lies

In Eley Williams debut novel, the concept of the liar plays an integral part in the narrative. In an odd way it’s not actually people who tell lies, as the above definition states but rather people who live a life under the guise of lying.

The book is separated into two timelines. The first one takes place in the present and focuses on Mallory, an intern who works at Swansby House, a place famous for publishing the New Encyclopaedic Dictionary . The problem is that as dictionaries go it’s never been updated ever since it’s publication in 1930. To add to the problems, David Swansby, the head of the house finds out that there are a lot of made up words in the dictionary (called mountweazels) and Mallory has to find them out so that the dictionary can be digitised. On top of that Mallory keeps receiving strange phone calls with threats to blow the place up. There’s more, Mallory is keeping her sexuality a secret and this is causing problems for her girlfriend Pip ( oh I love names like Pip and Mallory)

In the alternate chapters, taking place in 1899, we come across Peter Winceworth, who has a fake lisp. He’s one of the lexicographers at Swansby and is treated as joke between his workmates, especially the dashingly handsome Frasham and gets himself in a strange love triangle. His way of documenting his feelings is by writing the mountweazels in the Swansby’s New Encyclopeadic Dictionary – thus connecting past with present.

Saying that, both Winceworth and Mallory have more in common and it is lies which tie them together. Mallory’s pretending to be straight in public and Winceworth’s lisp are both cover ups to avoid reality. Also when both characters finally uncover truths they go through some sort of self revelation.

Lies are found in some of the other protagonists. Frasham is a liar, David Swansby is a liar and Peter’s love interest, Sophia is a liar as well. Do all the lies lead to truth? by the end of the book yes and each character benefits. Although the mountweazels, obviously, take the longest to be discovered.

Aside from lies, language is another focus point in The Liar’s Dictionary and it is a veritable cornucopia of subtle puns, neologisms, unknown words, alliteration. The book is a linguistic playground and anyone who enjoys adding new words to their repertoire of the English language (I can’t wait to tell people what grawlix or zugzwang is) has to read this book.

Eley Williams versatility also impressed me, although I personally dislike comparisons I did like the way the present day narratives were in the vein of Ali Smith while the 1899 narratives were not dissimilar to Kingsley Amis’ writing in Lucky Jim. That is not to say that Eley Williams copies them because her brainy writing style is one of a kind. It’s not easy to be verbose and yet be so accessible and funny – there are quite a few moments of slapstick. I also liked the unpredictability of the plot. There are lots of red herrings and twists that will just keep the reader turning the page and then laughing at how the twist’s denouement.

Whether you are a bibliophile, linguaphile or a logophile, then I do heavily suggest The Liar’s Dictionary. It is an absolutely fantastic and unforgettable novel.

Profile Image for Stephen.
443 reviews52 followers
February 4, 2022
Liar's Dictionary is the type of book critics love, and yes on the back are adoring quotes from the The Guardian, Sunday Times and Publishers Weekly. A book about words and word play, artfully written in nudge-nudge, wink-wink prose that says see how smart I am. Unfortunately that's all it says. The truth lies in decoding the title.
Liar: n. One who lies; a person who knowingly utters falsehood; one who deceives by false report or representation. See the reviews on the book jacket; e.g., "hilarious, smart charming...intoxicated with joy...perfectly crafted...a glorious novel." Liar's Dictionary is none of these. It's not funny or joyful. The main characters are miserable throughout. Regarding craft:

Dictionary: n. A reference work containing an alphabetical list of words, with information given for each word, usually including meaning, pronunciation, and etymology. In short, a work where each word has meaning, but the whole tells no story, has no narrative purpose. Liar's Dictionary in a nutshell. Lots of words to no purpose. What story there is is a series of odd vignettes that lead nowhere interesting.
I should have realized all of this when reading the entirely pointless preface.

As hinted above, reading Liar's Dictionary, I kept thinking Monty Python would have a field day with this. They would take the hubris in a which it was written and transform it into an incredibly funny sketch about a vainglorious author (played by Cleese) at a reception for her "great work" of brilliant word-play, interpreting Idle, Palin and Chapman's increasingly sarcastic comments about the book as praise for her vs laughing at her.

I mean Eley William's no ill will. She may be a great person. But Liar's Dictionary is not a great novel. It's not a good anything. On my buy, borrow, skip scale: I wish I'd skipped this one, or at least had sense enough to DNF it after the preface...or anywhere else prior to the end.

Addendum: For a far more interesting read about writing a dictionary, I recommend The Great Passage . Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is also very good. If you can read past its priggish author The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is ok.

Addendum: Love the cover. Very clever reference to an episode in the text.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews763 followers
August 4, 2020

a false entry in a dictionary or other reference work planted as a trap for plagiarists

It's that time of year again: in September, at least in times that are not extraordinary, the barn of the medieval castle just down the road here has a second hand book fair which gives me the opportunity to empty out the groaning shelves and make a contribution towards the upkeep of their museum. I do try to consider what might actually sell, rather than just take up room in the remainder box. So there's a whole long shelf of volumes that will never leave the house, at least not while I'm here to stop them. For one thing: because no-one, but no-one, ever uses these things any more. And for another: because I have a weird emotional attachment to them, although I no longer use them frequently myself either.

My dictionaries.

Monolingual: Chambers, Collins Cobuild (great for teachers), Duden, Le Petit Robert, Lo Zingarelli Minore.
Bilingual: Pons, Harrap's, Weiss Mattutat.

Le Petit Robert holds a special place in my heart. I remember how I had to save up to afford its heft, and how it saved me in many a translation exam (thème et version).
My Duden Stilwörterbuch is equally precious, if far less hefty or expensive: saves the hapless learner from blunders by giving example sentences.

So as you can imagine, this novel might have been written just for me.

Or for anyone who takes delight in words, in stories, in creativity and playfulness. In novels that manage to be both serious and funny, both fast-paced and thoughtful; and always lively, stimulating and warm.

Sheer delight.

One question asked here: what would be in your personal dictionary?

All those words I can never spell right first time round, medieval being a prime example. Those -ologies that I keep forgetting: epistemology, ontology, axiology. Help with pronunciation of those words I have only ever met in print, like fiducial or scorbutic.

And I would particularly appreciate a dictionary of false cognates between French and Spanish. False friends are the bane of every language learner's existence anyway, but somehow I find it extremely troublesome when, having learned one Romance language, the next one has the gall to go its own way. Thus esperar in Spanish is not espérer and atender is not attendre, nor is discutir (Sp.) the same as discuter (Fr).

And sniglets? A word that doesn't appear in any dictionary, but should?

Like the mixed feeling inspired by a huge pile of unread books: daunted and pleased.

Profile Image for Tammy.
512 reviews431 followers
December 3, 2020
What word nerd could possibly resist a novel about mountweasels within a dictionary? Creative nonsense words with perfectly legitimate definitions are rebelliously inserted into the fictional Swansby’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary by lexicographer Winceworth in 1899. Brilliant name for this character, too. A present-day lexicographer is tasked with ferreting out these offending inaccuracies for digitization of the dictionary.

This is a playful word romp probing the fluidity of language and its corresponding limitations. These limitations, of course, include difficulties with communication: speaking up, speaking out and speaking clearly. Wonderful word witticisms abound. I was genuinely amused.
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,787 reviews1,627 followers
July 16, 2020
The Liar’s Dictionary is award-winning writer Eley Williams’s debut novel and is very much a polarising book you'll either love or hate. Whilst it didn't have me quite as enamoured as I had hoped, overall I found it a compelling, profoundly original and a delightfully charming tale from opening pages right through to denouement. It should be every word, language and/or dictionary enthusiasts dream but it isn't quite as straightforward as that as there isn't much of a real plot as Williams makes the words and her turn of phrase her central focal point and you could say it was a word driven story as opposed to a plot or character-orientated one, which will appeal to some readers and not others. It's difficult to describe but it feels a little like some of Murakami’s inimitable novels in that sense and where he often inexplicably manages to simultaneously say so little but also so much. This is a wonderful work of literary fiction in which it becomes abundantly clear the passionate love affair the author has with language.

It's 1899 and Lexicographer Peter Winceworth is a man who belongs to the Diogenes school of thought in that he is as cynical as a person can be and has become tired and almost disillusioned with both people and life. He whiles away his days adding entries into Swanby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. To appease his dwindling sense of happiness and his dissatisfaction with the world he takes to entering random words amongst the real words in the dictionary knowing someone will likely discover their nature years later. Fast forward to present day and Mallory is currently working for Swanby’s as they work towards digitisation of the never-completed book. When her superior discovers words have been fabricated and placed into the book Mallory is challenged to discover all of the mountweazels present and more about the man who put them there and the reasoning behind them. In a turn of fate, Winceworth is given some sweet redemption and learns about the power of friendship.

This is a whimsical, engaging and joyous read and is profoundly perceptive and deftly observed with a smatter of satirical wit throughout. It also provokes thought on the topic of language formation and the evolution of the English language. Many thanks to William Heinemann for an ARC.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
666 reviews3,235 followers
November 1, 2020
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.

Read my full review of The Liar's Dictionary by Eley Williams on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,212 reviews35 followers
November 9, 2020
While I was not quite as enamoured of this as 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.

Thank you Netgalley and Random House UK / Cornerstone for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Jerrie.
986 reviews130 followers
March 22, 2021
This was such a fun, charming, and delightful book. It is a dual-timeline story about two lexicographers and how their lives eventually intersect. Lovely writing and clever wordplay, as well as endearing characters and a cat named ‘Tits’. Not completely happy with the ending, but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the book overall.
Profile Image for John Banks.
133 reviews51 followers
December 16, 2020

What a delightfully wonderful read. Filled with playfully exuberant writing, this tale of two lexicographers separated by a century and connected by Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary shares some special insights about the deep relationships among language, creativity and our humanity. And along the way the reader will savior a good few stunningly gorgeous passages.

The two central characters are Peter Winceworth (in the final year of the 19th century) and Mallory, a young woman in contemporary London. Winceworth, an eccentric young man with a contrived lisp and infatuation for words and language, works in London in the final year of the 19th century for the dictionary's editor. The contemporary Mallory is interning for Swansby's as an effort is made to complete, check and digitise the dictionary. As the novel develops chapters alternate between third person accounts of Winceworth and his experience working on the dictionary and first person chapters from Mallory. They become connected when fake words (mountweazels) are added to the dictionary by Winceworth and after these are uncovered by the contemporary editor, David Swansby, Mallory is tasked with finding them. This sets the stage for some glorious lexical and etymological fun and games.

Eley Williams' beautiful and playful style as she unpacks the textures and complexities of language also does so much more than just play elaborate word games. Although it's filled with delightful lexical play including puns, anagrams and fascinating resonances set up through sound and harmony. In these pages she explores themes about language, artifice, contrivance and dissimulation, art and aesthetics, love, trust, truth and desire. Tying all of it together is a concern with how the twisty, distorted, creative fabric of language provides us with the very stuff from which our humanity is made, including all of its frailties and delusions, as through often inadequate words and phrases we try to reach for something more, that often indefinable meaning of experience that eludes us. At moments it's nonsensical and yet it binds us together as we seek to share and communicate it. Williams powerfully and perhaps more importantly playfully invokes a sense of the joyous nonsensical that bends and breaks language (sometimes we call it love). Here I find resonances with Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, not in the sense of the fantastical but more that reveling in the play with words.

Just a sample of some of these passages:

Describing the Scrivenery where Winceworth works at his desk:

"The majority of the sounds of the Scrivenery were dedicated to paper - the sibilance of documents slid across desktop, the slightly more stuttered shuffling of leaves arranged into order or the khuhhkunk-ffppp of a book removed from its purchase on the shelves lining the large airy room. It is a lexicographer's impulse to categorise these things. All this was a welcome, cathedral-like calm compared to the orange oriole nightmare of Dr Rochfort-Smith's office, let alone the braying scheme and flux of Birdcage Walk and London's many other streets."

Winceworth resting on a park bench after a significant encounter:

"Two birds veered overhead, chattering and braiding the air. It might have been his imagination, but a dandelion seed seemed to drift through his line of sight and join them. He wondered whether anyone would miss him if he just stayed amongst the weeds, kicking the clocks of dandelions until facelessness and spending the afternoon not amongst paper and letters and words but instead here, head to and in and of the clouds counting birds until the numbers ran out. There were funny, oily little wild birds in the park, some of which he recognised. Surely too early for starlings. Starlings with feathers star-spangled and glittersome. 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.... [it goes on]"

What an invocation of and homage to the quiddity of life and experience. More than anything else this book celebrates literary language's ability to conjure up this shimmering quality of the irreducible particular, whether it be in a bird, a pelican (there's a very funny passage featuring a young woman Winceworth is infatuated with and a pelican), or that we discover in our encounter with another person. This is a writer committed to describing haecceity, that irreducible essence of things, and at the same time she plays on the artful contrivance of it all. In many ways the central character in this work is the wonderful fluidity of language. Here's the thing, there's a lot of heart and soul in this particular contrivance and Williams isn't afraid to own and celebrate that either. What a fabulous writing talent, I very much look forward to reading more from her.

Here's a review that particularly notes the distinctive qualities of Williams' style.

Profile Image for Holly R W.
342 reviews33 followers
March 19, 2021
"The Liar's Dictionary" is a tongue-in-cheek romp through playing with words. It's best read with an appreciation for absurdity. The book opens with one of the best first sentences I have read. "Dave spoke at me for three minutes without realizing I had a whole egg in my mouth."

The story alternates between characters Winceworth and Mallory. Both live in England. Peter Winceworth is a 27 year old man who works at a dictionary publishing business called Swansby's. His job is to define words starting with the letter "S". The year is 1899. He finds the work to be mind-numbing, but amuses himself by making up "mountweasels" - false words that he inserts into the dictionary. Many express his own experiences that have no names.

Mallory is a twenty something intern hired by David Swansby (the current owner of Swansby Encyclopedic Dictionary). The time period is the present. Mallory is struggling with how to be more publicly open about her physical relationship with her female room-mate, Pip. Both Mallory and Winceworth, as he is called, share a love for words and word-play. Like him, she too finds that poring over words each day can be stultifying. What complicates Mallory's job is a threatening, anonymous caller who harasses her daily.

I liked how the author presented the animals in the story. Swansby's has several residential cats who come in and out of scenes. They are all named "Tits" - a little bizarre, right? Winceworth has a singular encounter with a pelican later in the book, which was remarkable.

What I disliked was the overuse of word-play in the story. It obfuscated and obliterated the obvious and not so obvious drama. There was so much of it, that the word-play became annoying to me.

The ending was most satisfying to read. Life is full of ironies. The two protagonists, Mallory and Winceworth, focus so much on words, yet are poor at communicating. They each show dawning awareness of this and growth.
Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
569 reviews3,943 followers
May 28, 2021
La novela está dividida en dos narrativas unidas por el diccionario Swansby. Una de ellas tiene lugar a finales de 1800 y la otra en la actualidad. El problema es que a mi la trama del pasado no llegó a interesarme en ningún momento, mientras que la de la actualidad me pareció que tenía una voz mucho más interesante.
Los dos tiempos están unidos por el amor a las palabras (las reales y las inventadas), por el humor y las relaciones sentimentales.
Creo que es un libro muy bien escrito, ingenioso y novedoso en muchos aspectos pero que personalmente en ningún momento llegó a atraparme. El estilo de la autora es minucioso y excesivo al mismo tiempo... quizás el problema es que nunca me han fascinado ni los diccionarios ni la etimología de las palabras.
Es un libro extraño y peculiar, interesante por lo que cuenta pero que me ha aburrido por cómo lo hace.
Profile Image for Alwynne.
586 reviews600 followers
September 5, 2020
The Liar’s Dictionary isn’t perfect, it’s overly-dense, the slightly-abstract, fragmented preface doesn’t really work as a framing device for Eley Williams’s story, and the two distinct, but linked, narratives at its heart don’t always sit well together. But still I enjoyed this immensely, like her marvellous, more balanced, collection Attrib and Other Stories, Williams is absorbed in questions around language and communication here; she draws on a wealth of material from the history of dictionaries, literary fraud, to nonsense literature, even managing a brief nod to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language; while exploring deeper issues around truth, authenticity and creativity.

In the present Mallory’s an intern working to digitise the new edition of a dictionary, she’s the sole worker at the once-flourishing Swansby publishing company. Her work seems straightforward but it’s clearly aroused someone’s anger, and she’s routinely interrupted by a series of threatening phone calls – a source of anxiety for Mallory’s girlfriend Pip. Updating the dictionary reveals the existence of an array of fake entries, made-up words with fanciful definitions. These trace back to Winceworth, whose exploits make up the other half of the book. Winceworth’s employed by Swansby in its heyday, at the very end of the nineteenth century. Winceworth’s an outwardly downtrodden individual, whose passive demeanour masks a series of increasingly subversive acts. His settled routine is suddenly turned upside down, when he falls for his colleague’s, the aptly-named Frasham, fiancée Sophia. Mallory’s discovery of Winceworth’s dictionary entries form a bridge between their two lives.

There are some wonderful moments in this, although mostly in Winceworth’s sections, including a farcical scene featuring an unruly pelican that should have been illustrated by Edward Lear, while Williams’s depiction of Winceworth reminded me of a Gorey figure brought to life. Alongside the surface puns, droll humour and sometimes exuberant wordplay, Winceworth’s instances of rebellion, represented by his elaborate 'hoax' dictionary definitions, raised questions about what is/isn't a legitimate creative form; they also seemed to foreshadow a rapidly-approaching, seismic shift in the cultural landscape of his era, namely modernism and its fundamental questioning of the ways in which language could be deployed.

Sometimes I felt that the sheer number of factual digressions and anecdotes included in this threatened to pitch me into a rabbit-hole, but at least it was a pleasantly-furnished one. I was also less convinced by Mallory, she’s an interesting character but I found Winceworth's world far more engaging. An earlier draft of the novel formed the basis of Williams’s PhD thesis and she’s mentioned in interviews that she’d attempted to rework sections as short stories, and this may partially explain why this can feel a bit leaden at various stages.
Profile Image for Michael Ewins.
35 reviews31 followers
August 5, 2020
On paper (but where else?), The Liar’s Dictionary sounds like a my ideal novel. A narrative spun around the codification, culpability, and coercion of language! A thriller about the foundation and dissolution of an English dictionary! Even the McGuffin, those pesky mountweazels, wrinkle the tongue pleasingly!

I was so excited to read this novel, but much like a Swansby's dictionary left forever incomplete, The Liar's Dictionary just kept unspooling and digressing until an abrupt finale. There are elements that I liked - Williams conjures Swansby's HQ as an irresistible fusion of Tinker Tailor's... "Circus" and Rowling's Hogwarts, with Prof. Gerolf, his "beard cascading over the balcony," as its shadow-slinking Dumbledore. There are shafts of light sifting over staircases, cats plopping from rows of desks, dust and paper everywhere. This section also recalls parts of Kafka's The Trial and, even more so, Dostoevsky's The Double. This book's put-upon and trod-down Winceworth, first name Peter, even has a series of unfortunate faux pas at a birthday party, much like The Double's Petrovich.

Literary and filmic echoes abound in Williams' first novel - Roy Andersson, Lewis Carroll (there's a ridiculous fracas with a pelican in the book's midsection), and Fitzgerald to name a few, but it's still quite unlike anything else I've read. The tone lurches from whimsical to deadpan to farcical to tense, flitting from academic digressions on etymology to café meet-cutes (an order of Napoleon cake leads to the awful pun, "Looks nothing like the man") and explosions, and while none of it really worked as a whole for me, I do admire the ambition and collective scope of her writing

A few beautiful passages aside, I found myself increasingly worn down by Williams' twee, ostentatious style. I knew this was to be a plod-to-the-last-page read at around the halfway point, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the outcome of both stories (one set in 1899, the other present-day) to persevere. It's obviously Williams' intention that the stories don't intersect obviously or pleasingly, but to what end I can't be sure - I felt resoundingly gypped by both outcomes, particularly the clangingly obvious twist of the present-day section. Earlier this year I read Henri Lefebvre's The Missing Pieces, which lists "a series of works that are either unfinished, lost, forgotten, destroyed, or that were never even made." For me, that text had all of the melancholy, mystery, and love of the lost that this promised, and I found it as page-turning as any novel I've read in recent years. If you're one of the many people who did love The Liar’s Dictionary, I would highly recommend picking up that book next.
Profile Image for Phyllis.
529 reviews115 followers
February 20, 2021
What a fun frolic! This story is told with a preface followed by 26 alphabetized chapters from "A is for artful (adj.)" to "Z is for zugzwang (n.)." It centers around the doings at Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary in London, where the last Swansby scion is questing to digitize the family dictionary known really only for having never been completed after its derailment by WWI and its only printed incomplete edition from the 1930s.

Mallory is the present-day narrator and sole employee, tasked primarily with answering the daily threatening phone call to the company by a disguised robotic voice. Alternating chapters are narrated by Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer at the company during its heyday before 1900. Mallory and Peter are each independently lovable (and a bit quirky), and their individual disconnected stories within the book have you rooting for each of them all the way. Their interconnected roles in the grand search for mountweazels in the dictionary are pure wordplay delight.

Finally, there is the whodunnit of those threatening phone calls. Who could ever be so angry at a dictionary, and why? If you loves words, you'll greatly enjoy this novel.
Profile Image for Angus (Just Angus).
224 reviews465 followers
February 23, 2021
I really enjoyed elements of this book but sadly overall it just felt like the story never really came to fruition. It's beautifully written with such a promising premise but our characters never really seemed to get anywhere. Of the two timelines and two main characters I only seemed to care about one and therefore got quite frustrated when we had to switch back to the character that bored me.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,368 reviews544 followers
January 20, 2021
“I need to talk to you about mountweazels.”
Mountweazels,” I repeated.
“There are mistakes. In the dictionary,” he 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. Notquite 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.”

I found The Liar’s Dictionary to be a fun romp through time and language; examining how we assign meaning to words and meaning to life. Author Eley Williams is obviously in love with the English language, and although that made for some nice moments for a word-nerd like myself, Williams also seems in love with the sound of her own voice, and sometimes, the narrative drifted off into meaningless overindulgence for me. The plot here is pretty thin, the characters (and especially the background men) are even thinner, and if this is meant to be social commentary about the history of finding meaning in your work or acceptance of your sexuality, it’s certainly not deep. But it was fun — I had never heard of mountweazels before and I found Williams’ use of them as a narrative device to be fresh and interesting — and I’m happy to have read this. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)

Winceworth slipped the blue index cards into the deck on his desk. His mouth was dry. A private rebellion, a lie without a victim — what claims for truth did anyone really have? What right to define a world? Some trace of his thoughts surviving him was not so bad a thing. He would live for ever.

The plot rotates between two POVs: In Victorian London, Peter Winceworth was a young lexicographer, tasked with assembling words and their definitions for an English dictionary (at a time when many such efforts were underway to be the first to publication), and as he felt invisible at work amongst his fellow scriveners, and as he felt invisible in life (until he met the intriguing Sophia Slivkovna), he amused himself by making up words for feelings and situations that he felt ought to have names. In an act of “private rebellion”, he began to slip these nonwords into the official files of the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

In the present day, Mallory is a young intern who has been hired by the Swansby heir — the erect and elderly David Swansby — to help him to digitise what there is of his family’s famous dictionary (a reference book famous for having never been finished).

As well as answering calls, it was my job to check the spelling and punctuation of David’s updated words. This was laborious because David hated technology. Also, he had scrimped on buying office equipment. To use a computer in Swansby House was to hate the sight of an hourglass. The one on my computer’s loading screen was silent, monochrome and smaller than a fingernail, six black pixels in its top bulb and ten in the lower. I wondered how many months of people’s lives had been spent staring at this pinch-waisted little graphic popped up in the centre of this desktop. It made me think of the different tidemarks on the keyboard I inherited. Not quite grey, not quite black, not quite brown. Of what: skin? Grime? The word slough came to mind. The word sebum. The record of previous hands resting on this very same piece of plastic. Some of them might have died and this little scuff mark could be the only trace of them left on this earth. In short: this keyboard made me feel a little sick.

David eventually discovers that there are these made-up words in the dictionary, and as Mallory is further tasked with tracking them down, there’s a nice correspondence between the words she uncovers in the present and the situations that we see Winceworth go through in the past (slivkovnion (n.) a daydream, briefly could break your heart; asinidorose (n.), to emit the smell of a burning donkey is rather brilliant in its subtlety). And while I did like, that as a word lover, Winceworth would mull over fascinating vocabulary (abecedarian, smeuse, or widdershins), the following is an example of what I found simply excessive:

He wondered whether anyone would miss him if he just stayed put amongst the weeds, kicking the clocks of dandelions until facelessness and spending the afternoon not amongst paper and letters and words but instead here, head to and in and of the clouds counting birds until the numbers ran out. There were funny, oily little wild birds in the park, some of which he recognised. Starlings with feathers star-spangled and glittersome. 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, a 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.

(And on the other hand, as silly as it was, I laughed at loud at the scene with the pelican that came next.) Everything about the phone calls — beginning to end — annoyed me, I didn’t find authenticity in the relationship between Mallory and Pip (five years working around the corner from each other and Pip never once dropped by Mallory’s office before?), and the ending of Winceworth’s storyline was telegraphed from nearly the beginning: despite the cleverness of the mountweazels (which weren’t actually mountweazels) speaking across time, the plot for The Liar’s Dictionary really didn’t work for me. Yet still, I had fun with it; no regrets that I picked this up.
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2,438 reviews830 followers
July 16, 2020
This was wonderful for anyone who loves words and linguistics plus good storytelling. I could have spent many hours looking up definitions and checking which words were real and which fabricated. I found each of the stories compelling, although as a lover of historical fiction, my heart lay with Winceworth’s story. Many thanks to Netgalley for an arc of this book.
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