The Liar’s Dictionary
by Eley Williams.
Windmill Books, 2020.
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 […]‘R is for rum (adj.)’
For any writer worth her salt words will be her stock in trade. Their precise meanings, but also their imprecise meanings; their double meanings and their meaninglessness; when they’re set in stone and when they’re infinitely malleable. Eley Williams’s novel is its own metafictional universe, dealing as it does with real words, cuckoo-in-the-nest words, their puns and rhymes, as metaphors and as musique concrète. And, I suspect deliberately so, we’re left wondering what it all signifies.
We follow two timelines. One concerns intern researcher Mallory, tasked with searching out mountweazels — fake terms inserted into a published text — for the owner of the incomplete Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a thankless task until she’s joined by her partner Pip. The other strand, taking place towards the close of the 19th century, involves Peter Winceworth, a gauche young man who has unaccountably taken to affecting a lisp and is thus now saddled with a persona that’s become the butt of jokes amongst his colleagues working for Swansby’s in its heyday. When a beautiful erudite young woman takes an interest in him he finds himself embarrassingly tongue-tied in her presence.
The Liar’s Dictionary is thus a fantasia on things said and not said, of third parties who are not what they seem, and of secrets at the heart of an encyclopaedic publishers. That the failing firm is situated in Westminster may or may not be relevant to the political situation that has pertained in the second decade of the 21st century, especially when a certain government is riddled with accusations of blatant lies and fake news.
Among the many vivid images this novel conjures up is of a moth vainly fluttering up and down the pane of a railway carriage window; it also links to a simile comparing dictionary entries to butterfly specimens displayed under glass. Once words and their definitions are consigned to print are they forever destined to remain unchanged and unchanging, like insects trapped in a killing jar? The answer of course is no: languages are constantly metamorphosing, adapting to the times and to their users’ needs.
But the same mayn’t be said of mountweazels: the original purpose of these fake terms was to identify when a publisher’s work had had its copyright infringed when another publication unwittingly copycatted their text. Interestingly it’s rife on the internet now when, for instance, many baby name and surname databases simply reproduce each other’s entries, some obviously speculative etmologies and others glaring mistakes.
Williams focuses her narrative on two contrasting characters, Peter Winceworth who works in Swansby’s so-called Scrivenery as one of a hundred lexicographers sifting through entries for the ongoing encyclopaedic dictionary, and Mallory’s first-person narrative describing working for the founder’s descendant David as the firm’s sole employee. Peter’s nerdy nature and polite manner lead him into awkward situations, meaning he’s constantly living up to his surname as we wince at the way he’s treated, especially by the brash Frasham and the mysterious Sophia. Mallory on the other hand, while she knows her employer is taking economic advantage of her, is disturbed daily by a disguised voice phoning through a bomb threat; naturally this is a state of affairs that worries her partner Pip (who, incidentally, hates her given name Philippa).
Williams alternates the two timelines in succeeding chapters based on alphabetical entries. Both characters, as endearing as they are, are so enamoured with words that that they seem to pootle along in consequentially, and we start to wonder where their stories are going. And then things start to escalate very quickly…
I was aware of an undercurrent of anger. The author’s controlled ire quietly seethes at homophobia, bullying, duplicity, fraud, and casual flaunting of wealth and privilege, at the same time as she accepts certain individual weaknesses and failings. But above all I loved the quiet wit and humour all through this novel, and mused on the appearance of seemingly random creatures — not just lepidoptera but also cats and birds, including a very puzzling encounter with a pelican in St James’s Park. Combined, these all may have had significances which passed me by but they at least provided some comfort from a sense of life continuing regardless of our machinations — for now, at any rate.
In the meantime we may be lucky and have a little cottage by the sea in Cornwall to which we can retire if and when life gets too much.