Butterflies under glass

© C A Lovegrove

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.

Moth. WordPress Free Photo Library

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.

20 thoughts on “Butterflies under glass

  1. It is tough to want something someone else won’t give you, satisfying when you find away around the problem that requires only yourself, and thus it is with words. They have to make sense to other people, but a great pleasure also comes from coining or tweaking a word that makes a reader agree it should have existed already.

    It’s a small aim of mine to have a few words in that category. And to have someone say, “Well put!”

    As long as you’re consistent, readers won’t squawk. Which should be spelled sqwauk – but isn’t.

    Today it was a film nomineed for an award – instead of nominated. I liked it better – and the film IS a nominee.

    Not too many – but a handsful-worth of Easter eggs scattered about makes it better. Lewis Carroll make many a word, and Mark Twain created a few.

    I love being in charge.


    1. ‘Nomineed’ is another of those words Modern English is prone to, in which a noun in verbed (though sometimes it’s the other way round, when a verb gets nouned..)

      Carroll liked to coin portmanteau words in particular, Alicia, didn’t he?

      In the meantime you might enjoy this post in which I invent another term for the study of bookmarks in addition to a couple of others I had suggested: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-selido


    1. You’re welcome, I thought so too! 🙂

      Oh, and I liked your video of Madrid Street musicians, thanks—I’m always impressed by so-called junk musicians and bands who use recycled or ‘found’ materials such as kitchen utensils.


    1. It took me a while to get into it, Karen, the pace was quite slow for the first half though it picked up eventually. But it was the sheer fun with words (echoes of Dylan Thomas at odd moments) and the author’s own coining of pretend mountweazels that lifted it for me.


    1. Nor had I heard of the term before, Simon, but the whole thing about fake entries and placenames devised to either catch plagiarism or just for mischievous fun is fascinating!


  2. I’ve read her Attrib. collection of short stories and really like her writing. The Liar’s Dictionary is on my wishlist but I won’t let myself buy it until I’ve read more of the books I already own. I’m resisting the urge to let down my guard after reading your review, Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

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